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

 

 

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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

 

On the Road Between Jerusalem and Emmaus: A sermon for Easter 3A

This sermon, offered on April 30, 2017 at Saint Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Madison, Wisconsin, is built around the readings assigned for the Third Sunday of Easter in Year A of the Revised Common Lectionary.

You can find those readings here

This sermon was preached from the center aisle without notes.  What follows is a transcript of the recorded sermon.

 

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.

Please be seated.

 

So I don’t know if it feels this way to you. It feels to me like it was forever ago… But in reality it was only two weeks. Two weeks ago we gathered here three times on the same weekend, Saturday night and twice on Sunday, there were beautiful flowers on the ledges up front here and in all the windows, we had extra musicians up front and the choir sounded amazing. There was a palpable sense of the Spirit in this room, and between those three services 400 people came to church here at St. Andrews. It was amazing. It was just two weeks ago.

Now I don’t know about you, and I’m sure that people say this every year, and I may have said this last year too, but this past year has seemed particularly difficult to me. And so my guess is that those 400 people came here that weekend with a lot of questions in their hearts and minds;

Wondering if the tomb was indeed still empty;

Wondering if we could continue, in the light of all that’s going on around us and the world, to put our faith, our trust in, to continue to believe in the one who came to show us that we are beloved of God and that God is well pleased with us;

Who came to teach us that we are all worthy of dignity and respect;

To show us beyond doubt that nothing could ever separate us from God’s love;

And that we will never, never be alone.

There was a lot at stake that weekend: our faith, our trust, our belief… and we came here to this place to reaffirm what long to know and believe and to trust… two weeks ago… two weeks ago.

Well, in today’s gospel story we have Cleopas and his companion, so let’s just assume for the moment that it’s Cleopas and Mrs. Cleopas, and it is the exact same day that the tomb was discovered to be empty. Not two weeks later. This is the same day and Mr. and Mrs. Cleopas received the same message that we heard two weeks ago. The women who had gone to the tomb came running back to say that the tomb is empty and we’ve seen a vision of angels who told us that Jesus has been raised from the dead!

Now a few lines before the passage we read today we hear that all of the disciples gathered together heard the women’s testimony as an idol tale. And if you go back and look at the original Greek what they really thought it was, was nonsense. Nonsense. It was so far beyond what they could imagine or believe they decided that it was nonsense. And here are Mr. and Mrs. Cleopas on that same day making the 7-mile hike from Jerusalem back to their home in Emmaus defeated and broken. When Jesus encounters them on the road they say, “but we had hoped…” “But we had hoped that he would be the one to redeem Israel.” And now their hopes are dashed. The same day!

So here we are, two weeks later, and I think it’s fair and appropriate to do a little check in… “How you doing?”   We all left here two weeks ago enlivened, lifted up – I mean we were so excited we went outside and we hunted for Easter eggs. We went home and ate chocolate Easter bunnies. We made ham and lamb and all sorts of things and had meals with the people that we love… But here is two weeks later and I’m wondering if the world around us has started to kill that buzz yet. So how you doing?

I think there’s something really important in this story that only Luke shares with us. And that is the reality that it’s hard. Even for those early disciples who were there in his presence, who heard this word from Mary and the rest of the women, it’s hard cling to that state, and that trust, and that hope, in the face of the pain and the suffering that we experience and that we see in the world around us.

Something remarkable happens in that story. Jesus encounters them on the road to Emmaus in the midst and depth of their grief but he doesn’t leave them there. And this is how he pulls them out.

He shows up and they say, “Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who hasn’t heard the things that have happened?” And he says, “What things?” Tell me what’s on your heart. Tell me what’s bothering you. Tell me what you are struggling with. And they tell him the story… and then he proceeds to remind them of different story, a larger story, the story that describes who they are and whose they are. He digs into their sacred Scriptures and points to all of the things in those sacred stories that describe the necessity of what’s happened in the last three days.

Then they invite him in to spend the night, and they sit down at the table, and Jesus takes the bread, blesses it, breaks, it and gives it to them. So there’s a pattern, there is a rhythm there. There’s an order you should recognize.

Yesterday morning when we were here rehearsing with the choristers who are up there in the balcony supporting us in worship this morning we walked through the ordo, the order of our worship. And here’s what we talked about.

We gather together and we say, “Alleluia! Christ is risen! The Lord is risen indeed!” We declare God’s presence and we start to pay attention in a very specific and intentional way. And then we say, “Almighty God to whom all hearts are open, all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hid…” We open ourselves up. We open our lives to God, and offer what’s hurting, what’s broken, what needs to be mended and reconciled.

And then, we hear from the Old Testament the stories that describe who we are and whose we are, and we responded by saying a psalm together.

Then we hear a story from the New Testament and we respond to God’s missionary outreach through those words by singing another song.

Then we hear the story from the Gospels, the stories of Jesus’s life. And we try very hard to break those open and make those relevant to who we are here and now.

And then we will stand up and will say the Creed. Here’s what we believe about the God with whom we’ve been in dialogue and conversation.

Before you know it were taking that bread and we’re blessing it, and were breaking it, and we’re sharing it.

For Mr. and Mrs. Cleopas this was such an eye-opening moment, it was such a revelation, that they dared to make that 7 mile journey, after dark, back to Jerusalem to share with the rest of the disciples how the whole world had been changed for them by this meal that they shared with Jesus; how their eyes had been opened and they knew the risen Lord in the breaking of bread.

So a couple of minutes ago I said we needed to check in, we needed to see how everybody’s doing two weeks after we celebrated the feast of the resurrection. If you feel the never ending gray skies, and the events of the world around us; wars and rumors of wars, and all of the stuff that fills the news, bearing down on you, threatening to squash the joy that we felt on Easter day… then this is the place to be!

This is the place to be, where we can offer to God our struggles, our doubts, our fears, our pain, our loss; and our joys, and our successes, and our celebrations, and our loves. And then be in dialogue with God through our holy Scriptures; being reminded of who we are, and in whom we live, and move, and have our being… And then we participate in that sacred meal; the taking, and blessing, and giving of bread.

I think there are a couple of caveats to all of this, to this process. First of all we have to be prepared to say what things… what it is that we have on our hearts, and in our minds. We have to be prepared to open ourselves and be vulnerable. To say I’m struggling, I’m wrestling, I have doubts, I have fears. And then to engage in those Scriptures as if they were our own story. And then to come to this table ready to be fed and to be sent on that road back to Jerusalem, back to share the story, back to give to others what has been given to us.

The most important thing I think though in all of this is the sanctification, the acceptance, the embrace of how difficult this path can be. Walking from Emmaus to Jerusalem, and back to Emmaus, and back to Jerusalem. We’re bound to go back to Emmaus and have to make our way back to Jerusalem yet again.

Maybe there are some people for whom a switch is thrown, a light comes on, fingers are snapped; and all of the doubt, and pain, and struggle that we experience in this life goes away. But I haven’t met that person yet. I wish I could tell you that was my story but it’s not. The thing is we don’t have to feel bad or guilty for finding ourselves back in Emmaus.

What we need to do is come to this table, to come to this gathering and share those stories, and hold out our hands, and receive that bread, so that our eyes can be reopened, and we can be reminded; we can come back to ourselves, and go back out into the world.

So here we are this morning. I don’t know if you’re still in Jerusalem. I don’t know if you are in Emmaus. I don’t know if you’re somewhere on the road in between or even which direction you’re facing at this moment. But wherever it is that you are Jesus will meet you in that place. And you are beloved, and with you, no matter where you are on that journey, God is well pleased.

So come to this table. Be nourished and fed for the journey. Take a look around you at your companions on the way. Mr. and Mrs. Cleopas… I see a lot more people on the road than that…

Amen

Love Your Enemies, Change the World: A sermon celebrating the life of The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

This sermon, delivered at Saint Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Madison Wisconsin on January 15, 2017 began with an audio excerpt from The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King’s sermon “Loving Your Enemies.”  You can find that audio excerpt here.

The Gospel assigned for the Celebration of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, and referenced in this sermon, can be found here.

 

 

“Now there is a final reason I think that Jesus says, “Love your enemies.” It is this: that love has within it a redemptive power. And there is a power there that eventually transforms individuals. That’s why Jesus says, “Love your enemies.” Because if you hate your enemies, you have no way to redeem and to transform your enemies. But if you love your enemies, you will discover that at the very root of love is the power of redemption. You just keep loving people and keep loving them, even though they’re mistreating you. Here’s the person who is a neighbor, and this person is doing something wrong to you and all of that. Just keep being friendly to that person. Keep loving them. Don’t do anything to embarrass them.   Just keep loving them, and they can’t stand it too long. Oh, they react in many ways in the beginning. They react with bitterness because they’re mad because you love them like that. They react with guilt feelings, and sometimes they’ll hate you a little more at that transition period, but just keep loving them. And by the power of your love they will break down under the load. That’s love, you see. It is redemptive, and this is why Jesus says love. There’s something about love that builds up and is creative. There is something about hate that tears down and is destructive. So love your enemies.”

Excerpt from “Loving Your Enemies,” The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, a Sermon Delivered at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church on November 17, 1957

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Please be seated.

The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke those words in a sermon that was delivered at the Dexter Ave., Baptist Church on November 17, 1957, almost 60 years ago. Just eight years later in 1965 in the middle of the civil rights movement, as this nation grappled with his character and nature, we watched in horror, the world watched in horror, as a group of peaceful protesters attempting to march to Selma were set upon by dogs and billy clubs on the Edmund Pettis Bridge. Dr. Martin Luther King and the movement that focused around him, the movement in the center of which he stood, brought this nation to its senses and a lot has changed since that time. Tomorrow all across this country, in state houses all over this land, here in Madison, people will gather to celebrate the witness, and the life, and ministry of Dr. King, and his achievements, and the progress that we have made.

But even as songs are sung, and prayers are prayed, and speeches are spoken tomorrow, we all have some concern and perhaps even some fear in the back of our minds. We have come a long way but we had not yet reached the finish line. We have seen in this nation that racism still exists, that inequality still exists; that people are oppressed, and held back and held down, because of the color of their skin, the faith that they hold, the people that they love. So we know that there is still work to be done.

Dr. King in his sermon tells us to love our enemies and he is in that moment harkening back to the gospel reading that we just heard, The gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ according to Luke. And so in this increasingly secular age we might find some comfort and maybe even some humor in the fact that the entire nation will take the day off tomorrow to celebrate a preacher who is telling the story of God’s saving grace and love for this world.

But even in the midst of that solace, and comfort, and or humor, our concern persists for all the work that has been done, for all the time that has past, for all the people who have gone before us pressing this fight.

How can we pick up that agenda and carry it forward.

Make no mistake it is ours to forward. We stand in this place, we kneel in this place, and we proclaim that we are all one; children created at the hand of the same loving God. And we proclaim that nothing we can do can ever separate us from that love. Nothing that separates us by birth, faith, loves, tradition, country of origin, color of skin, can ever separate us from God’s love and should never separate us one from another. We are one! We proclaim that here. This is our call and our vocation, the narrative that lies at the core of who we are, and we should be proclaiming that truth and telling that narrative in every place where two or three are gathered. It is our vocation and our calling to work to realize the vision, the dream that God holds for all creation, the vision and the dream that Jesus made manifest in this world, the vision and the dream that Dr. Martin Luther King worked so hard to realize.

How can we do that? How can we, in this time that seems to be so polarized, where our public discourse is so extreme and angry, how can we make a difference? How can we move the needle? How can we bring people together again?

Jesus tells us to love our enemies, to be good to those who hate us, to pray for those who abuse us. He said this pretty early in his ministry and I don’t know that these are the commandments that I would have led with in trying to gather a following or to win over people’s hearts and minds. These are perhaps some of the hardest things that Jesus says to us. But then as we watch and listen to his story he lives them out.

I’m going to conflate the words for forgiveness or forgive and love here. I think that we might argue a little bit about the chicken and the egg. Do we have to love someone before we can forgive them or do we have to forgive someone before we can love them. I think that probably Jesus, and even Dr. King, would argue with us that these two behaviors, these two ways of being, are one and the same. You can’t have one without the other. And so I am confident in this conflation this morning.

Jesus hangs on a cross. He allows us to betray him to humiliate and torture him. And then to hang him on a tree and watch him die. He does all of this so that we know without a doubt when he comes back and continues to love us, despite the very worst that is within us, that there is truly, as Paul will say later, nothing that can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus. Having experienced us at our very worst we are left with no, no fantasies to harbor that we somehow live outside of the grace and light of God’s love.

Charles Hefling, biblical scholar and theologian, in an article entitled Why the Cross, published in the Christian Century in March of 2013, says this about forgiveness, about what Jesus does on the cross, and in his resurrection:

“Forgiveness would mean the remission or cancellation or cessation of (deserved) punishment. It comes down to taking away the taking away.

Certainly Jesus had every right, in our anthropomorphized sense of God’s justice, to insist that those who had abused him, and abandoned him, and murdered him be punished. And certainly people who were on the Edmund Pettis Bridge had the right to insist that those who had so injured them punished and held to account. But Hefling goes on to tell us:

“If you choose to retaliate, you perpetuate the evil by causing a new injury. The choice may be wholly justifiable, but it is no less injurious for that.   If instead you choose to hold a grudge, to brood on your injury and cultivate your dudgeon, you will still perpetuate the evil, internally, by diminishing yourself, souring your character and becoming your own victim as well as mine.”

Hefling seems to be telling us that it is in our best interest it’s a rather pragmatic step to forgive and to love our enemies because to failed to forgive and love them we will be somehow damaging ourselves.

But even here that understanding of forgiveness and love sell short the way that Jesus loved us and the way that Dr. Martin Luther King and the people who walked on that bridge that day prosecuted their movement.

Hefling tells us:

“On the other hand, if you choose to forgive, you are choosing to absorb the infection, as it were; to contain its self-diffusion, to forgo the gratifications of revenge, resentment, self-vindication and righteous indignation.”

You are choosing to absorb the infection, to contain its self diffusion, to end the cycle of retributive violence that holds us thrall. To end the violence that perpetuates itself, begetting violence, violence begetting hatred, hatred feeding violence.

What Jesus did on the cross some two thousand years ago changed the world and offered us a different way to be, a different way to live in community with one another. And what The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King and Rev. John Lewis and the people who marched on their way to Selma and marched in countless other cities changed this country. And in fact, changed the world.

Loving our enemies, loving our neighbors as ourselves has that potential change to world. We are not just called to love the people who are lovable, the people who look like us, dress like us, believe like us, and love like us. We are called to love everyone. And that includes the people who we find challenging and difficult. It includes the people who disagree with us, and the people with whom we disagree. Loving those people means listening with open ears and open hearts. Listening not to respond but to learn, to understand.

Jesus speaks to us through Luke’s gospel some 2000 years ago and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King speaks to us from 60 years ago in a Baptist Church, and tomorrow he will sing and pray and give teaches all of which should be calling us love, to love our neighbors as we love ourselves and even, even in this time of the fear and division, to love our enemies.

Amen.