Break forth, O beauteous, heavenly light: A sermon for Christmas Day, 2017

One morning in the first week of December, I was walking back to my office after having coffee with a colleague on State St. It was around 10 am and a bright sunny day. As I came toward the church, I looked up and saw something remarkable, perhaps miraculous. The sun was at the perfect angle in the sky so that it shone directly through the tower windows. I had never seen this before. It filled the tower with light that shone even more brightly than the sun.

But that wasn’t the remarkable thing. On the tower walls, and I have no idea how this occurred, there was reflected light from the sun; it was patchy but it went up the tower walls. I had no idea where the light was coming from but it was a sight that was so ethereal, so bright, so beautiful, that it took my breath away.

 

I’ve been around this place for over eight years. I thought I was familiar with all of its nooks and crannies (well, to be sure, I’ve never climbed up the tower to see the bells). I thought I had seen it from every angle, at every time of day or night. As beautiful as Grace Church is, it’s become so very familiar to me that I don’t expect to see something new, I don’t expect to encounter and experience beauty in a new way. Continue reading

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God is with us: A Sermon for Christmas Eve, 2017

Is there anything quite so wonderful as a Christmas Eve service? The church is decorated beautifully with poinsettas and wreaths and greenery. Our beloved and beautiful crèche stands where it does each year at the foot of the altar, with its wonderful hand-carved figures. We have heard our choir and organ perform music familiar and new. Some of us have already begun to celebrate Christmas, having come here from parties or gatherings. Others are looking forward to late night festivities, or to lavish dinners tomorrow with friends and family.. Continue reading

She fed our Bread: St. Augustine of Hippo on Mary

He who sustains the world lay in a manger, a wordless Child, yet the Word of God. Him whom the heavens do not contain the bosom of one woman bore. She ruled our King; she carried Him in whom we exist; she fed our Bread. O manifest weakness and marvelous humility in which all divinity lay hid! By His power He ruled the mother to whom His infancy was subject, and He nourished with truth her whose breasts suckled Him. May He who did not despise our lowly beginnings perfect His work in us, and may He who wished on account of us to become the Son of Man make us the sons of God.

 

from Sermon 184, For the Feast of the Nativity

The Song of Mary

These words have been very much on my mind and in my heart this Advent:

He hath showed strength with his arm; *
he hath scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.
He hath put down the mighty from their seat, *
and hath exalted the humble and meek.
He hath filled the hungry with good things, *
and the rich he hath sent empty away.

the full text (traditional language from the Book of Common Prayer):

My soul doth magnify the Lord, *
and my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Savior.
For he hath regarded *
the lowliness of his handmaiden.
For behold from henceforth *
all generations shall call me blessed.
For he that is mighty hath magnified me, *
and holy is his Name.
And his mercy is on them that fear him *
throughout all generations.
He hath showed strength with his arm; *
he hath scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.
He hath put down the mighty from their seat, *
and hath exalted the humble and meek.
He hath filled the hungry with good things, *
and the rich he hath sent empty away.
He remembering his mercy hath holpen his servant Israel, *
as he promised to our forefathers,
Abraham and his seed for ever.

Being Witnesses: A Sermon for the 3rd Sunday of Advent, 2017

In these dark days of Advent, as the days grow shorter and the sun’s light grows dim, the mood of our nation and our world seem very much in synch with the season. It’s difficult for us to ignore all that is occurring around us and focus on the season of Advent, and the coming of Christ at Christmas. Sometimes I feel as though the festivities and hoopla, whether it’s the parties we throw or attend, or the glitz of stores and the blitz of marketing are all intended to distract us from what’s happening—global warming, the threat of nuclear catastrophe, the continuing assault on our constitutional liberties, on democracy itself.

It’s hard to find our way through it all, it’s hard for us to find perspective, to keep our faith when there is so much profoundly wrong and unjust, and the forces of good seem impotent in the face of the evil that surrounds us.

On top of it all, many of us struggle to make sense of, let alone, proclaim, the message of Jesus Christ in this context. When Christianity has been coopted by extreme nationalists and white supremacists, when there seems no connection between the message of love, peace, and reconciliation proclaimed by Jesus Christ, and the dominant voices of Christianity in America, we may want to hide our faith, to keep quiet. We fear being associated with the Franklin Grahams and Roy Moores and silence our voices, out of fear that we might be accused of supporting them. Let me just add, if you are not deeply troubled by the cooptation of Christianity by a certain political agenda in this country, you should examine your beliefs and commitments, for the very soul and future of Christianity is at stake, the gospel is at stake.

Our lessons today remind us of where our focus should be, where and how we should proclaim Christ, where and how we should work for justice.

The reading from Isaiah, the first verses of which provide the text for Jesus first public proclamation in the Gospel of Luke, offer both reassurance and command. As Christians, we read these words as promise of Christ’s coming, of the future reign of God that he proclaimed and for which we hope. We see ourselves as recipients of that good news, and of the promised healing and release.

At the same time, we must see ourselves in this story, not just as recipients of God’s grace and justice but as participants in the coming of that justice. We are called to rebuild the ruined cities—and here we might think not only of literal cities, but of all the ways that human community, the common good, have been undermined and attacked in recent years.

Even stronger are the words from the Song of Mary. It’s always helpful to remember just who she was—a young woman, likely a teenager, mysteriously, shamefully pregnant, as vulnerable in her historical context as a similar young woman would be in our day. Yet from that small, unlikely, reviled person, comes this powerful hymn that witnesses to God’s redemptive power:

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.

 

This familiar hymn has suffered for its popularity and familiarity. Its use in worship over the millennia has numbed us to its revolutionary power. We need to reclaim it today, sing it with meaning. We need to do more than sing it, we need to work so that it comes into being. We need to imagine the possibility that God is working in this way, in spite of all evidence to the contrary, in spite of all our fears, doubts, and despair. We need to believe that the words of a first-century teenaged single mom can inspire to see God at work in the world around us. For remember, the world in which she lived was unjust and violent as well, and for many people hopelessness and terror were ways of life.

And finally, the gospel…

We heard the story of John the Baptizer from the Gospel of John. It’s a brief excerpt of a larger narrative, and on the surface it’s rather strange, although you might not have thought anything odd about this when hearing it. In the Gospel of Mark’s description of John that we heard last week, the focus seemed to be on his lifestyle, his clothing and diet choices (camel’s hair, locusts and wild honey). According to Mark, he preached a message, “Repent for the kingdom of God is at hand.”

Now in John’s gospel none of that is present. While some of his preaching message is consistent, at the heart of John’s portrayal of John is something else, the fact that John was a witness to Jesus Christ. In a rather odd formulation, John writes that “

This is the testimony given by John when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, “Who are you?” He confessed and did not deny it, but confessed, “I am not the Messiah.”

For that is John’s purpose and role in the fourth gospel—to point toward Christ. John is a witness, the witness. And more than witness, for the Greek word behind the English “witness” and “testify” in the first few verses of the reading is word from which we get our English word “martyr.” John came to bear witness to the light, to testify about Jesus Christ. Later in the first chapter, John sees Jesus passing by, points to him, and tells several of his disciples, “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” The disciples then leave John and follow Jesus.

These are questions of identity and purpose. The priests and Levites asked John who he was, in a scene that is reminiscent of the scene in the synoptic gospels where Jesus asks his disciples who people say that he is. John directs their attention away from him toward Christ.

John offers us an important lesson, not just about who he was and who Jesus Christ is. He also reminds us that one of the most important things we do, in our words and in our lives, is point to Jesus Christ. It is in and through us that others learn what it means to follow Jesus and also learn Jesus’ message of love, peace, mercy, and justice. In this time, when so many others proclaim a different gospel, and very different message of Jesus, our witness to him is more needed than ever. May we witness, testify, and point, clearly, unequivocally, and boldly, to the Jesus Christ who stands with the poor, the oppressed, the captive, and the God who casts down the mighty from their seats and fills the hungry with good things.

 

 

 

 

 

Update on the Beacon, Madison’s new daytime resource center

the Beacon has been in operating since October 16, since it’s coming up on its 2-month anniversary. We received an update from Jackson Fonder, ED of Catholic Charities about how things are going. A few statistics tell part of the story:

  • Average attendance per day: 215
    Average children per day: 20
  • Total showers: 809
  • Total loads of laundry: 617
  • total lunches: 3,330

Behind those statistics are others. On one Saturday, 37 children were present. The racial makeup of guests reflects the deep racial inequities in our city: 42% white/caucasian; 51% African-American (For Madison overall, the percentage of whites is 75.7; 7.4% of the population is African American: Statistics from here: https://statisticalatlas.com/place/Wisconsin/Madison/Race-and-Ethnicity)

There are struggles because of the sheer numbers of guests they’ve been seeing, and especially the number of families with children. We also heard about safety and security concerns. In the next weeks, they will try to schedule meetings with neighbors and with neighborhood groups as we heard from some nearby businesses about issues that have arisen with the presence of this new facility and the guests its serves in the neighborhood.

Channel 3 aired a story on The Beacon yesterday: https://www.channel3000.com/news/the-beacon-is-helping-more-people-than-expected-needs-volunteers-and-donations/672238585

While the piece suggests that in-kind donations are welcome, the priority is now on the need for cash donations to meet this year’s and next year’s budget. It’s likely that they will have to pay for additional security presence for the foreseeable future.

To find out more about the Beacon, visit their webpage or Facebook

Church Shootings and the peace of Christ

This past week, I facilitated a workshop at the Annual Meeting of the Wisconsin Council of Churches on the topic of gun violence. Members of the Council’s Peace and Justice Commission had put the workshop together hoping to provide resources for clergy and lay leaders to help them talk with their congregations about the constellations around gun violence: domestic violence, mental illness, toxic masculinity, suicide, etc, Our goal was to begin to educate ourselves and others about ways to talk about gun violence in our congregations that get beyond the current polarized debates and see gun violence as a pastoral issue as well as a public health concern.

We included a few items about how churches might respond to the possibility of an active shooter. In fact, participants in the workshop were most concerned about that issue and we spent a lot of time exploring questions around preparedness for an active shooter and balancing our values of openness and welcome with the need for security.

In the workshop, I provided some information about the rise in shootings at houses of worship as well as results of studies examining past incidents.

There have been a number of articles in recent weeks that take a closer look at the dynamics behind church shootings most are not random. The largest number of shootings are related to robberies. Other significant factors include the shooter’s feeling unwelcome or rejected by the church (17% in one study) and mental illness (11% in that same study, cited by CNN)

A recent CNN piece published after the Texas shooting included results from two recent studies:

Drake counts 147 church shootings from 2006-2016. Looking more broadly at all violence at allhouses of worship, Chinn has tallied more than 250 incidents each in 2015 and 2016. Through August, there had already been 173 this year, according to Chinn.”

 

Among the shooters’ motives cited in those studies:

  • Over 25% robberies
  • 17% shooter felt unwelcome at church, or had been rejected
  • 16% domestic violence
  • 14% personal conflict (not family related)
  • 10% mental illness
  • 9% religious bias

The set of resources we offered is available at the Wisconsin Council of Churches website:  It is a work in progress and will be updated.

Two recent articles by Kate Shellnut at Christianity Today explore important aspects of the issue. On domestic violence: Kate Shellnut, “A Top Reason for Church Shootings: Domestic Abuse” Christianity Today, November 7, 2017

Among the statistics she cites:

And on the relationship between “God and Guns” in the minds of many conservative Christians: Kate Shellnut, “Packing in the Pews: The Connection Between God and Guns” Christianity Today, November 8, 2017

As I said in the interview, balancing openness and welcome with the need for safety is an important issue. More important, however, is that we remain true to our call to follow Jesus Christ and to share the love of Christ with the world. In a nation awash with guns, where violence seems to be the first recourse in any conflict, our faith in God must overcome whatever fear we might have, and our witness to Christ’s love must include being agents of reconciliation and models of other ways of resolving conflict and building community.