Being open to the strange: A Sermon for the Last Sunday after the Epiphany, 2016

 

Corrie and I discovered streaming video last fall. We haven’t really watched network TV for fifteen years or so, but found ourselves needing something to help us unwind after stressful days. So we watched all of “Bing Bang Theory” over the fall. Then we turned to “How I met your Mother.” It got pretty lame but we stuck it out to the bitter end because we weren’t quite sure what else we might watch. Then, a couple of weeks ago, we came across “Mozart in the Jungle.” It’s a program produced by Amazon, available on streaming video. Set in the rarified environment of New York’s classical music scene, it chronicles the lives and world of the fictional New York Symphony, its hot-shot young conductor, the struggles of people trying to make careers in the fine arts, as well as the financial challenges of arts institutions in contemporary culture. Continue reading

Hope: A Sermon preached by Christa Fisher

 

This past Sunday, Christa Fisher, Chaplain to Men at the Dane County Jail, visited Grace, preached, and gave a presentation on her work at the Jail. Here is her sermon.

John 11.1-44

 

Good Morning. Thank you for the invitation to join you in worship this morning. It is my privilege to be here, sharing the Word of God with you – a Word which has the power to restore and transform lives. As the Chaplain to the men of the Dane County Jail I see God’s powerful Word at work each day, and I am hopeful we will all experience God’s Word at work among us now.

I chose the story of the Death and Resurrection of Lazarus for today because I hear in this story the experience of incarceration – not only the experience of being incarcerated, but also the experiences of the families and communities of the incarcerated. You see, though this is Lazarus’s story, it is also the story of his family, his friends and his community. We learn about Lazarus in the very first verse, when Jesus is sent word of his illness, yet Lazarus does not appear in this story until the very end, when he emerges from the cave. With the exception of this one verse, the rest of the story, the other 43 verses describe how his family and community are coping with the situation. Though it is Lazarus’s story, he is, for the most part, an absent and silent character. This is the experience of incarceration.

Most of the men whom I serve would tell you that time in jail is lost time. Though the clock continues to tick and the seasons come and go, the passing of time has no significance. Nothing happens in jail and there are few resources available to help men and women in jail advocate for themselves. As such they, like Lazarus, lie in windowless cages, day after day, week after week, month after month, and even sometimes year after year, solely dependent upon the compassion of others.

Today’s scripture text begins with a compassionate plea. Martha and Mary have sent a message to Jesus about their brother. “The one whom you love is ill.” Unable to advocate for himself, Lazarus’s sisters advocate on his behalf. They don’t outright ask Jesus to come and heal Lazarus, but they are hopeful the news will compel Jesus to do just that. They are frantic with worry and Jesus is the only one who can truly help.

By the time Jesus arrives Lazarus has died. He is referred to from this point on in the story as “the dead man.” Many of you have been introduced to the men and women who constitute my congregation. You know them, if not as your own family or friend, then through the media, which tells you “who” they are based upon “what” they have done.   Their identity is now determined by their worst action, worst choice, or worst behavior. He is a thief. She is a child abuser. He is thug. She is an addict. What the media doesn’t tell you is “why.” Like Mary and Martha, concerned families contact me daily. The one whom they love is “ill” they tell me. He has an addiction to heroin. She suffers from schizophrenia and is un-medicated.   He saw his mother beaten to death. She was sold for sex by her grandmother in exchange for drugs. He is homeless. They are in pain. As a pastor of the jail, families reach out to me hoping that by sharing their stories I will understand how to heal their brothers and sisters, their sons and daughters. I am not Jesus. And healing is not one of my gifts. But I believe people can be healed because Jesus tells me, he shows me it to be true.

This is the promise of the cross – God brings forth life from death, love from hatred, joy from pain, and peace from terror. The Christian faith was born out of this promise. We are reminded of it each week and we profess it to be true. Because of this promise we are a hopeful people.

Yet, like Martha, who was a devoted student of Jesus, we often compromise our hope for resignation. “You want us to do what? You want us to remove the stone? Why? He has been dead four days. Already there is a stench. You are too late. There is nothing more we can do.” Hope is scary. It is risky. It can seem irresponsible and it definitely is not rational. Hope may lead to good and great things but it may also result in disappointment, loss and heartbreak. By comparison resignation seems responsible.   We know what to expect, when to expect it, and what not to expect.   Resignation is safe but it does not lead to life.

It seems to me that the Incarceration System was constructed out of resignation rather than hope. With few exceptions it has functioned as a place where people go who are deemed, at least temporarily, unfit for society. If the Incarceration System had been born out of hope, we wouldn’t be shackling people, putting them in cages, and identifying them based upon booking numbers. We would be prioritizing their mental, physical, logistical and spiritual needs. There are many good intentioned people working within the jail, but their ability to effect change is limited by the System itself. Mental health and medical professionals are drawn to the jail with intention of helping people heal, truly heal. Unfortunately, the demand is so great and the services so few, that their primary responsibilities are to diagnose and distribute medication. Contrary to popular belief, the mental health staff are not therapists. The medical doctor lives in Illinois and visits the jail twice each week. The nursing staff, two people per shift, spend their days triaging the medical needs of the 800-plus men and women confined to the jail each day. And the jail’s one re-entry coordinator has the enormous responsibility of helping all the men and women find jobs, housing, food, medical care, and recovery support services upon release. This is not a system born out of hope but it is also not defined by resignation. Hope exists because God and God’s people continue to be at work.

While I have drawn many parallels between our scripture text and the experience of incarceration, there is one considerable difference. Lazarus was silent in the cave because he had died. The men and women whom I serve are alive and they are vocal about their desire to live full, healthy lives. Each month I receive hundreds of requests for pastoral conversations. Each piece of paper in this stack is an individual request for prayer or conversation from the last two weeks. The need and the hope which exists in the jail is far greater than this stack of paper can begin to demonstrate.

Shortly after beginning my position, I went to speak with a man who had requested a conversation and a prayer. While we were talking men began congregating near us. I didn’t think much of it. There is no privacy in jail – someone is always nearby. After we had concluded our visit I looked up and saw nine men, none of whom had submitted requests, patiently and quietly waiting for time with me. After four hours I spoke and prayed with each of them. Hope is waiting in line for four hours for a prayer.

Sometimes it takes men many weeks or even months to reach to me. When I ask why I hadn’t met them sooner they tell me they weren’t ready. Ready for what? Ready to hope, they say. Hope is scary.

I wonder how Lazarus’s family and community were feeling as Jesus instructed them to open the cave? As Martha pleaded with Jesus to act rationally, were others holding their breath in anxious anticipation? Did Martha try to talk Jesus out of opening the cave because she could not handle any more disappointment? Her fear of disappointment didn’t lie with Lazarus. She expected nothing more from him. Rather, her fear lied with Jesus – she was afraid he would disappoint her.

As the minutes ticked by, the hearts and minds of the people were slowly changed. They watched the radical Rabbi refuse to surrender his trust in God to a trust in rational thinking. And they looked inside themselves, discerning whether or not they might have the courage to hope for the impossible? Throughout his ministry he had been demonstrating to them, that through God nothing is impossible. However, healing someone who is already alive is quite different from raising a “dead man” to life. . .

The story tells us hope reigned that day. The people set aside their fears, their resignation and their rational thinking, and they rolled the stone away.

And then the impossible happened.

The “dead man” heard Jesus call him by name and he followed Jesus’ voice out of the darkness of death and into the light of new life.

The story does not end here. There is one more verse. And this verse is my constant prayer for all of my brothers and sisters in jail. That upon their release they will be met by a community of people who will support, encourage and accompany them on this scary but hopeful journey to a full and healthy life. It seems an impossible dream, completely irrational thinking. But I am a Christian and my faith tells me to trust in God, through whom all things are possible.

“The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to the crowd, ‘Unbind him, and let him go.’ ”

Thanks be to God.

Amen.

 

Proclaiming the Year of the Lord’s Favor: A Sermon for the Third Sunday after the Epiphany, 2016

 

 

As I’ve walked around our building the past few weeks, trying to negotiate my way around painters, tilers, electricians, and carpenters, I’ve noticed that my own feelings of anticipation and excitement are growing. I’ve heard others express similar feelings. Everything we’ve worked so hard for over the last years, all of the meetings, the conversations, the fund raising, the visioning, all of it has brought us to this point. It seems like the closer we get to completion—2 or 3 weeks away, the more our excitement is spiking as we look forward to taking ownership of and living into our newly-renovated and expanded spaces. We’re almost there.

At the same time, as I walk around Grace, I notice all the things we didn’t do, the product of decisions we made to limit the scope of our project to keep within our financial resources. In a way, I think that’s a positive thing, because even as we celebrate and enjoy all that we’ve done, we will have some very visible reminders of the work that remains ahead, the work we have to do in the years to come. We won’t be able to sit back and relax. Continue reading

On the Third Day… A Sermon for the Second Sunday after the Epiphany, 2016

 

On the third day, there was a wedding in Cana of Galilee…

On the third day…

The gospel today begins with a phrase that is so familiar to anyone who regularly attends a church like ours where the creed is recited every week in the liturgy. If we pause for a moment to think about it when we hear it, we will immediately think of the rest of the clause “On the third day, he was raised from the dead.” Continue reading

Living with our differences: Update on the Primates’ Meeting

We’ve learned more about the Primates’ Meeting today, from news reports, a news conference, and the official communique. A more nuanced picture of the entire meeting emerges from these additional reports. Participants at the news conference emphasized that the meeting took place surrounded by prayer, that they shared the Eucharist and foot-washing and that overall the tone and tenor was quite different from previous meetings, though difficult.

Today, the official communique from the Primates’ Meeting was released. The full text is available here. It addresses issues like climate change, religiously motivated violence, and evangelism (in an Addendum B):

We, as Anglican Primates, affirm together that the Church of Jesus Christ lives to bear witness to the transforming love of God in the power of the Spirit throughout the world.

It is clear God’s world has never been in greater need of this resurrection love and we long to make it known.

We commit ourselves through evangelism to proclaim the person and work of Jesus Christ, unceasingly and authentically, inviting all to embrace the beauty and joy of the Gospel.

We rely entirely on the power of the Holy Spirit who gives us speech, brings new birth, leads us into the truth revealed in Christ Jesus thus building the church.

All disciples of Jesus Christ, by virtue of our baptism, are witnesses to and of Jesus in faith, hope and love.

We pledge ourselves together to pray, listen, love, suffer and sacrifice that the world may know that Jesus Christ is Lord.

In the press conference today, Archbishop of Canterbury Welby sought to parse the precise implications of the communique for the status of the Episcopal Church. He argued that that document refers to consequences, not sanctions, stating that provinces being autonomous, have the right to go their own way, but that if they do so, they can expect such consequences. It’s not even clear that other Anglican or ecumenical bodies would honor the Primates’ decision. Another tidbit, the Primates called for a Lambeth Conference of all Anglican bishops for 2020 (interesting that it lies beyond the 3-year hiatus for Episcopal Church participation in Anglican bodies).

This wordsmithihng deserves careful attention. First, it’s not at all clear that the Primates’ Meeting has the authority to make such a demand of the Episcopal Church. Second, Welby’s efforts to distinguish between “sanction” and “consequence” seem rather lame.

There’s been a great deal of discussion on social media about how the Episcopal Church ought to respond.

“We enjoy a fellowship and communion in Christ that is bigger than any of our difference.” Bishop Curry’s message to the church:

“it means that we have more work of love to do, and that work of love is helping our story and the story of many faithful Christians … to be told and heard, and it really may be part of our vocation in the world to bear witness to that, and it’s a loving witness.”

The link to Presiding Bishop Curry’s video response to the communique:

Can we finally bury the Anglican Communion?

I’ve not paid attention to matters related to the world-wide Anglican Communion for some years. After the relative disaster of the Lambeth Conference in 2008 and  the apparent collapse of efforts to create a more binding relationship among the provinces by means of the Anglican Covenants, I suspected the Anglican Communion would continue to exist more as an idea than as reality. When Archbishop of Canterbury Welby announced he wasn’t going to convene a Lambeth Conference in 2018, the reality seemed quite dead.

Not so fast. When he made that announcement the ABC also said he was going to convene a Primates’ Meeting–for those unfamiliar with odd and obscure Anglican vocabulary, “Primates” are Archbishops and other heads of provinces; provinces being national, or multi-national branches of the church.

That group is meeting this week in Canterbury, England. There was much speculation in the run-up to its gathering about what might emerge. Tensions over matters related to full inclusion of LGBTQ Christians continue to cause friction. Would Archbishops from the Global South show up? Would they force action against the Episcopal Church over our decision to permit same-sex marriage?

The Primates have spoken. They have asked the Episcopal Church to temporarily withdraw (for three years) from Anglican and ecumenical bodies:

It is our unanimous desire to walk together. However given the seriousness of these matters we formally acknowledge this distance by requiring that for a period of three years The Episcopal Church no longer represent us on ecumenical and interfaith bodies, should not be appointed or elected to an internal standing committee and that while participating in the internal bodies of the Anglican Communion, they will not take part in decision making on any issues pertaining to doctrine or polity.

Presiding Bishop Michael Curry is representing the Episcopal Church at this meeting. Episcopal News Service offers these words from him in response to the Archbishops’ Communique:

“Our commitment to be an inclusive church is not based on a social theory or capitulation to the ways of the culture, but on our belief that the outstretched arms of Jesus on the cross are a sign of the very love of God reaching out to us all. While I understand that many disagree with us, our decision regarding marriage is based on the belief that the words of the Apostle Paul to the Galatians are true for the church today: All who have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is no longer Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male or female, for all are one in Christ.

“For so many who are committed to following Jesus in the way of love and being a church that lives that love, this decision will bring real pain,” he said. “For fellow disciples of Jesus in our church who are gay or lesbian, this will bring more pain. For many who have felt and been rejected by the church because of who they are, for many who have felt and been rejected by families and communities, our church opening itself in love was a sign of hope. And this will add pain on top of pain.”

Pain indeed. Whenever relationships are broken, whenever there is division in the church, there is pain. Archbishop Welby himself reportedly said in an address to the Primates:

We so easily take our divisions as normal, but they are in fact an obscenity, a denial of Christ’s call and equipping of the church. If we exist to point people to Christ, as was done for me, our pointing is deeply damaged by division. Every Lambeth Conference of the 20th century spoke of the wounds in the body of Christ. Yet some say, it does not matter, God sees the truth of spiritual unity and the church globally still grows. Well, it does for the moment, but the world does not see the spiritual church but a divided and wounded body. Jesus said to his disciples, “as the Father sent me so send I you”. That sending is in perfect unity, which is why even at Corinth and at the Council of Jerusalem, we find that truth must be found together rather than show a divided Christ to the world.

Powerful words, but they ring rather hollowly this evening.

The Anglican Communion may not seem like a big deal to many Episcopalians. It may not even seem real. And it may be that the Archbishops’ decision will have little impact. After all, the Episcopal Church is not going to revisit its decision concerning same-sex marriage. Other provinces already recognize and perform same-sex marriages and its likely that others will join that group. I’ve long expected that ultimately the communion would divide internally along such lines, even as the church in the US has with a parallel entity the Anglican Church of North America existing alongside the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Church of Canada. At the same time, it’s important to acknowledge the powerful forces at work in our society that are changing how people relate to institutional churches. As denominations decline and denominational loyalty disappears, what might any of this matter in thirty or fifty years?

Still, there’s an important role for international relationships with Christians in other countries. Through such relationships we are reminded of the universal nature of the church and through such relationships we can cooperate with Christians in other countries in all sorts of ways. Grace’s membership includes people from England, Uganda, Kenya, Liberia, Barbados, and Jamaica. Just this past Sunday an African family recently relocated to Madison from another city in Wisconsin visited Grace. How will our congregation be affected by the Primates’ decision today?

One Faith, One Hope, One Baptism: A Sermon for the Baptism of Our Lord, 2016

 

Today is the Feast of the Baptism of Our Lord. Each year on the Sunday after the Epiphany (which occurs on January 6), the church remembers Jesus’ baptism by John. It’s also one of the major feasts when we typically offer the sacrament of baptism. It’s an especially appropriate day for us to baptize newcomers to the faith, as it reminds us all of Jesus’ example.

With Epiphany, we have moved out of the Christmas season and into a period when we explore the ways in which we experience God’s becoming present among us and in the world. Our scripture readings, gospel, even hymns, during these weeks will emphasize God’s glorious presence in the world. There’s a sense in which the season of Epiphany is an extension of the season of Christmas, when we celebrate and experience God becoming one of us, God in the midst of us. But Epiphany is not limited to our experience of God in Christ, it encourages us to explore all of the ways God makes Godself present and real to us.

The synoptic gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke agree that Jesus’ baptism is the beginning of his public ministry. In none of those gospels do we hear Jesus speak before he is baptized by John. That should make attune us to the significance of this act, both for the gospel writers (and the communities for and to which they were writing) and for Jesus. In all three gospels, the description of Jesus’ baptism is accompanied by what we would regard as supernatural events—the heavens are opened, a voice speaks, and the Holy Spirit comes upon Jesus. The details of these events differ from gospel to gospel. Luke emphasizes, for example, that the Holy Spirit comes upon Jesus in the bodily form of a dove and that the voice speaks directly to Jesus, saying “You are my Son, the beloved.”

There are many questions we might ask of this brief account of Jesus’ baptism in Luke, especially if we were to compare it to the accounts in Mark and Matthew, but for today I want us to focus on the significance Luke places on the event. There are two things to note. First, the voice—“You are my Son, the beloved.” It’s significant that Luke has this statement addressed to Jesus (Matthew, for example, has the voice saying, “This is my son” in other words, the voice addresses the crowd, not Jesus.” In his baptism, Luke seems to be implying, Jesus becomes the one of whom John spoke; he is the one to fulfill the expectations of the people.

The second important thing is the coming down of the Holy Spirit. This points to one of the key themes in Luke’s over-arching narrative—the presence of the Holy Spirit. Luke organizes his two-volume work, the gospel and the book of Acts, by emphasizing the role and activity of the Holy Spirit. It comes down upon Jesus at his baptism. Jesus’ last words on the cross in Luke are “Into your hands I commend my Spirit” suggesting that the Holy Spirit departs from Jesus at his death. Then, on Pentecost, the Holy Spirit descends upon all of the disciples and goes with them throughout the world, as the brief reading from Acts reminds us. For Luke, baptism and Holy Spirit are linked, for Jesus and for everyone.

The two are linked in our practice as well. As I pour water into the font and pray over the water, I recall the Holy Spirit’s moving in creation and I invoke its presence in the water and in the lives of those being baptized. After I pour water over their heads, I will anoint them with the oil of chrism and tell each of them that they are sealed by the Holy Spirit in baptism and marked as Christ’s own forever.

I may say the words but I doubt many of us expect or experience the sort of supernatural events described by Luke at Jesus’ baptism. In our church, baptism usually occurs with small children, typically infants as is the case with Ella and Noah today. And while we celebrate the baptisms of babies, rejoicing with their families as we welcome them into the body of Christ, our modern sensibilities shrink back from the idea that something supernatural is happening when I pour water and say the words, “I baptize you in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”

But today we are also baptizing an adult. Actually, it’s a bit more complicated than that. Soon after Paula began attending services regularly, she and I had a conversation during which she told me she didn’t know whether she had been baptized. We could have left it at that. After all, if you were baptized as a baby, you couldn’t remember being baptized, and the chances that you would still have a baptismal certificate highly unlikely—we regularly receive requests from people for proof of baptism. There’s one sitting in my email inbox right now.

So today is a teaching moment for all of us. Paula wasn’t sure whether she had been baptized and wanted that certainty. So, I will be performing what’s called a conditional baptism, prefacing the usual formula with the phrase “If you are not already baptized…” The church has long taught that any baptism performed with water and in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is a valid baptism, no matter who performs it or wherever it takes place. In fact, rebaptism is considered heresy.

Paula’s desire to be certain of her baptism is a reminder to all of us of the importance and the power of baptism. It may only be water, and it may only be words. But the words and the water brought together have the power to save. Baptism cleanses us from our sins, brings us into the body of Christ and makes us Christ’s own forever. We bear the sign of the cross; the sign of Christ’s suffering and love, and we share that sign with the world. In baptism, we embark on the journey of becoming Christ’s own, of becoming Christ-like. Each time we witness a baptism, we are invited to recall and reclaim our own baptisms, to recall and reclaim our identity as Christ’s own and to recommit ourselves to becoming transformed into his image.

May the baptisms of each of these individuals be a powerful presence in their lives, as they share in Christ’s death and resurrection, and receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. May these baptisms be a powerful presence in our lives, reminding us of Christ’s saving and life-giving power, inspiring us to repentance and newness of life, filling all of us with joy.