Songs of Suffering, Songs of Silence, Songs of Joy: A sermon for the 2nd Sunday of Advent, 2018

 A couple of weeks ago, Corrie and I went to see Bohemian Rhapsody, the bio-pic of Freddie Mercury and the band Queen. If you’re around my age, Queen’s music was, and perhaps still is, part of the soundtrack of your autobiography. The lyrics, the showmanship, Freddy’s incredible voice—and those songs, Bohemian Rhapsody, We are the Champions, they defined an era, a genre within Rock music, and decades later, they are still ubiquitous, not only on playlists but at sporting events and in popular culture. The movie begins and ends at LiveAid 1986, when Freddy Mercury, already suffering from HIV/Aids and the band gave a show-stopping performance. It was a moment of cultural significance, artistic expression, cries of hope and pain that captured the world in an experience of such effervescence that one might call it a religious experience.

Music does that. Whether it’s a stadium performance with a rock band in front of tens of thousands of fans, a small jazz combo like John Coltrane’s in an intimate club, opera, or yes, even in a worship service, music transports and transforms us, helps us communicate our deepest emotions, our faith and our doubt; music also shapes our experiences; creates experiences for us, affirms or calls into question who we are, who God is, our pain, our hope. Continue reading


Your Redemption is Drawing Near: A Sermon for the First Sunday of Advent, 2018

 Almighty God, give us grace to cast away the works of darkness, and put on the armor of light, now in the time of this mortal life in which your Son Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility; that in the last day, when he shall come again in his glorious majesty to judge both the living and the dead, we may rise to the life immortal; through him who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

This beautiful and powerful collect for the First Sunday of Advent calls to mind both the first and second comings of Christ and prays that we might direct our energies and lives away from evil and toward the light of Christ brings to our awareness the central themes of this season and orients us to the scope of history and the history of salvation. We live as Christians between that time of Christ’s incarnation, his death and resurrection, and the consummation of our final hope in Christ’s return. As Christians, we have experienced the first fruits of Christ’s transforming work, but we live in this world, in this time, enmeshed in the powers of darkness and evil that surround us and seem to hold sway. Continue reading

My kingdom is not of this world: A Sermon for the Last Sunday after Pentecost, 2018

Today is the Last Sunday after Pentecost, the last Sunday in our liturgical year, and it’s commonly called “Christ the King.” To be honest, I’m not a big fan of that name, and not just because of the twitter debate this past week on whether it’s an appropriate observance in the Episcopal Church. No, my discomfort is deeper, with the history, imagery and temptations of the observance. It’s a relatively recent practice. Pope Pius XI introduced it in the Roman Catholic Church in 1925, just a few years after the end of World  War I. He was concerned with the rise of secularism and the corresponding decline in the political power of the Roman Catholic Church, and thought that a robust celebration of Christ the King would combat those evils. Protestants came to embrace it as well, and even though the Episcopal Church has not adopted the name for this Sunday, the propers–the scripture readings and the collect focus on Christ’s kingship.


Discomfort with the observance is not just related to its provenance. It’s a bit jarring, in our ostensibly democratic society, to talk about kingship at all. And at a time when we are sensitive around issues of hierarchy, authority, and gender, to appeal to Christ the King is problematic.

Of course, as our readings point out, all of them, Jewish and Christian scripture are replete with imagery of kingship, especially as used of God. In the Psalm, for example, God is depicted as a king seated upon a throne, and the language here suggests an analogy between the rule of God and the rule of Israel’s king, an analogy that has persisted among Christians down through the centuries. At the center of the Psalmist’s vision is an image of the king ruling in splendor and majesty, on a throne.

Similar images dominate the readings from Daniel and Revelation. Both of them, as I mentioned last week, are apocalyptic texts, and in these excerpts we are treated to images of the world as the authors imagine they might become or will be, or even perhaps are, if we see the world as it really is, ruled and governed by a righteous and just God. Although we don’t see those themes in any of these three texts, the notion that God’s reign is a reign of peace and justice is self-evident. All of these images are meant to emphasize the fact that Christ’s kingship, though accompanied and understood with imagery from human experience of kingship, is of a totally different order. Christ’s kingship has no beginning or end; it will not fail or falter

Whatever the imagery that might come to mind when we think of kings and kingship—whether we imagine the British Royal Family, or perhaps Louis XIV, the Sun King and the resplendence and opulence of Versailles Palace, the reality of human kingship is rather different than its display. For that, the small portion of John’s gospel that was read will do quite well. For that is how kingship has played out in human history, in oppression, injustice, and violence.

As Procurator or governor, Pilate was the most powerful person in this little corner of the world. He had come to Jerusalem, as he did every year during the Passover to be present during a time filled with tension. The Jewish community was remembering and celebrating God’s deliverance of the Hebrews from an evil and oppressive ruler, and given that they were living under an equally evil and oppressive tyranny, tensions always ran high. That explains, at least in part, the charge that was brought against Jesus—King of the Jews. It was not simply a mistake, or an effort by his Jewish opponents to get the Romans to do their work for them. It was, quite frankly, accurate. Jesus did pose a political threat to the Roman Empire. By preaching the coming of God’s reign, Jesus presented a direct challenge to Roman power, and to the local leadership who both benefited from, and helped to exert that power.

We see that confrontation front and center here. When Pilate asks Jesus, “Are you the king of the Jews? Jesus, and we suspect that Pilate is not asking the question honestly. He does not know, or care who Jesus is. In fact, he seems most interested in finding some way to avoid responsibility for what is taking place. And Jesus seems willing to help Pilate avoid what is to come. As the Gospel of John tells the story, Pilate will make every effort to avoid condemning Jesus to death. He moves back and forth between Jesus and the other players in the drama—the crowd that according to John seeks Jesus’ death. He offers to free Jesus, but the crowd will have none of it. Then he stages a mock ritual of coronation with the purple robe and the crown of thorns.

Pilate asks Jesus, “Are you the king of the Jews?” Jesus puts the question back on him, asking him his motives for the charge. But Pilate will have none of it, and so Jesus responds, “My kingdom is not of this world—cosmos, to use the Greek word. And here, our western, 21stcentury conceptions get in the way of understanding what’s at stake. For when we hear Jesus saying, “My kingdom is not of this world,” we are inclined to think of the contrast between spiritual and material realms, or perhaps between political and religious, projecting our notions of completely separate spheres of human experience and human power back on to the first century.

But when Jesus says, “my kingdom is not of this cosmos” he is using a term that in the Gospel of John is introduced in the very first chapter, and recurs throughout. The world, the cosmos, is inveterately opposed to God: “He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him” (John 1:10). At every turn, the world rejected Jesus, yet throughout the gospel Jesus again and again expresses his desire and intent to save the world.

For example, John 3:17: “God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” And John 12:47: “I came not to judge the world but to save the world.”

But Jesus’ efforts came to naught. As we see in this passage, his apparent attempt to sway Pilate away from the predetermined course of events was a failure. Pilate was enmeshed in the world, he saw things only in terms of power and self-protection and in the end, condemned Jesus to death.

This gospel story presents us with a grave temptation. It is likely that we see the confrontation between Pilate and Jesus as a historical event, with a clear winner and loser, and with no implications for our own lives, except that it resulted in the crucifixion.

In a very profound way this confrontation between Jesus and Pilate presents us with a dilemma that faces us in our present lives and circumstances. We are blind to the ways in which we live in and share the values of the world into which Jesus comes and to which Jesus offers a clear alternative. To what extent do we place our trust in the might and wealth of empire? To what extent do we offer our allegiance to secular power? To what extent do we bow down in homage and worship of the kings of this world?

To put it that way is to obfuscate because we live in a purported democracy not a monarchy. But in so many ways, on so many levels of our society, the rules of raw power and dog-eat-dog contests determines winners and losers.

Christ the King Sunday is a problem because it allows us to elide the distinction between the reign of Christ and the kingdom of this world. Our king may not wear purple or a carry a crown, or even sit on a throne, but imperial power still holds sway and may be more brutal today than at any time in recent history.

When we think of the kingship of Christ, our attention and focus should be, not on images of Christ ruling in majesty, but rather images of Jesus in the dock, facing the oppressive power of an unjust and evil regime. When we think of the kingship of Christ, we should think of Christ, not elevated or seated on a throne in majesty, but hanging on a cross, dying at the hands of oppressive, imperial power.

When we think of the kingdom of Christ, we should think not of the kingdoms and empires of this world, fighting unjust and meaningless wars that claim millions of innocent victims. We should think instead of Christ the victim, suffering at the hands of an imperial power, suffering with and for, those innocent victims. And if we want to live under Christ’s reign, live in Christ’s reign, we should take our place beside those innocent victims, and work for justice and peace. For that is the nature of Christ’s reign, a reign not of this world, not of hate, or violence, injustice or oppression, but a reign of love, justice, and peace. May Christ’s reign come soon!

Not one stone will be left: A Sermon for Proper 28, Year B (Annual Meeting) 2018

 We are nearing the end of the liturgical year. In the church, the new year begins on the first Sunday of Advent, which this year falls on December 2. But there’s a sense in which our gospel readings in the weeks leading up to that day help us prepare for Advent. Indeed some preachers and liturgists extend the season of Advent back three Sundays and advocate for a seven-week season of Advent.

There are at least two reasons for this move. The first reason for this extension of Advent is, I suspect, largely cultural. Since retailers replace their Halloween merchandise with their Holiday merchandise, and radio stations and satellite services have already started playing holiday music, extending Advent to the beginning of November is a way of offering a counter narrative to the excesses and consumerism of the Holiday season. The second reason for this longer Advent is that our gospel readings for these three Sundays are drawn from Jesus’ teachings concerning his return. They are what we call Apocalyptic literature.

Apocalyptic, which derives from a Greek word meaning revealing, emerged in the second century BCE during a period of crisis among the Jewish people. The central chapters of the book of Daniel are the earliest example of this type of literature. It is symbolic, full of strange beings. It presumes a cosmic battle between the forces of good and evil, in which ultimately, the good will prevail. While it seems to be describing events that will take place at a future time, in fact, it is describing in highly symbolic terms what is happening in the world right now. So, from time to time, after describing some event or some figure, a beast with seven horns, for example, the author will provide a clue, or a hint, and say, “let the reader understand.” Apocalyptic was also the context in which the idea of the resurrection of the dead first became popular, among the earliest clear references to the idea is in fact in the verses from Daniel in today’s first reading.

As I said, the world of apocalyptic is full of fear and danger, and we live in a context which is full of such imagery and events. Whether it’s mass shootings, terrorism, the continuous wars, or the wildfires that have transformed the landscape of California, taken lives, and changed the lives of so many people, our world seems to be collapsing around us. In such a context, Jesus’ words sound ominous indeed.

Today’s gospel, though written about two millennia ago, comes from a time and a community that were experiencing some of the same fear and uncertainty that we face as a world. As I’ve said before, it’s likely that Mark was written during the Jewish revolt against Roman occupation, and either shortly before, or after the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple. We date the gospel to this particular historical moment in part because of the very verses we heard today—the disciples marveling at the size and grandeur of the temple, and Jesus’ prediction of its destruction.

The Jewish Rebellion and the destruction of the temple constituted a cataclysmic change for Judaism. It was also of enormous significance for the tiny community of Jesus’ followers, who were caught in the midst of the conflict. As they looked around at what was happening around them, as they probably fled the violence, they were also reflecting back on Jesus himself, the hopes and faith he had instilled in them. As we have seen throughout this year, Jesus proclaimed the coming of God’s reign. It’s quite likely that many of those in this tiny community forty years later saw in the Jewish revolt and the Roman response, signs of Jesus’ imminent return.

You can almost hear the conversations of that community in Jesus’ words. He warns against false prophets—those who claim to be Jesus, those who claim to know when Jesus will return. All of the catastrophes, the wars, rumors of wars, earthquakes, and the like. There were people wondering whether these things were signs of Jesus’ return, signs of the end times. Of course, as we imagine first-century Christians wondering about these things, we know all too well that many contemporary Christians, and many in secular society, too, are fascinated with predictions of the end times.

Jesus’ words concerning his return are elicited by an observation of one of his disciples. Let me give you some background. In Mark’s chronology, this takes place of Tuesday in Holy. On Sunday, Jesus and his disciples made the triumphal entry into Jerusalem, which we reenact on Palm Sunday. After that, Jesus went to the temple and looked around.. Then he and his disciples left the city and spent the night in Bethlehem. On Monday, they returned to the temple, and overturned the moneychangers’ tables, after which they returned to Bethany. They came back to the temple on Tuesday where Jesus had a number of encounters with groups of Jews, the chief priests and scribes, some Pharisees and Herodians, some Sadducees. After the story of the widow’s mite which we heard last Sunday, they left the temple again, which is when this story takes place.

Once again, it’s as if the disciples are completely oblivious to what Jesus has just said, or has been saying all along. It’s the sort of remark we make as tourists, “Look at how big the stones are!” It’s the sort of remark I often hear when visitors come to Grace: “Wow, what a beautiful church!” Jesus’ retort may have been intended by Mark to reflect the reality that after Rome destroyed the temple, not a single stone was left standing but it’s an important reminder to us as well.

It’s not about the stones, even if it is our responsibility to make sure the stones of this building remain intact. The Jewish temple, Grace Church, are supposed to be places where people encounter God, where they experience the love of Christ and are transformed by that encounter. The beauty of our spaces, both inside and out, are meant to offer such opportunities, to invite people into relationship with God.

One way of thinking about all those encounters Jesus had with Jewish groups in the temple before this, from the moneychangers to the chief priests, Pharisees, and Sadducees, is to see them as challenges to the immediacy and accessibility of people to God. Spaces create barriers; institutions establish and maintain boundaries, communities dictate who’s in and who’s out. Jesus challenged all of those efforts to limit accessibility to God, to set boundaries. The threat he posed was part of what led to his arrest and execution.

2000 years later, those tendencies remain. We focus on the stones, not on God. Sometimes, instead of being a means of access to God, the building becomes our God, and we worship it or focus all of our energies and attention on it rather than on what it is supposed to be. Sometimes, a building can also be seen as an impediment, that it requires resources that might better be expended in other ways, in outreach to the community, for example. Striking the right balance is always a challenge, but I believe we at Grace do that.

I was reminded of the power and possibility of our spaces to connect us with God on Friday evening of this week. Corrie and I were walking on the square just as our bells began to ring at 6:00 pm. Hearing them from the other side of the square wasn’t just a distraction or noise. The sound of the bells reminded me of all that they represent: the faithful people who installed and now maintained them, their sound reminding me of God’s presence in this city, even on a Friday evening.

That is what our spaces should do—our building, our bells, our gardens, all should remind passersby of God’s presence in the world, and invite people to experience and enter into that presence more deeply, whether here at Grace or in other places or other ways in their personal lives.

We don’t know how long Grace Church will remain standing, whether for fifty, or a hundred, or five hundred years. But there will come a time, I suspect, when stone will no longer stand on stone, when there will only be rubble. But until that time comes, in God’s time, it is our responsibility, our mission, to ensure that our buildings and our congregation, are places where people encounter, experience, and share God’s love.

A communion of saints: A Sermon for All Saints’ Sunday, 2018

Today is All Saints’ Sunday. In the life of Grace Church, it’s a day full of opportunities to reflect on who we are as a community and who we are becoming, and called to become. We are baptizing a baby today. We commemorate those who have died from our congregation and our loved ones, in the last year and distant past. We welcome new members into our community, and finally, we gather up our pledges of financial commitment to the ministry and mission of Grace for the coming year. Continue reading

Make a joyful noise! A homily for Choral Evensong and the Rededication of the Bells

I wanted to say a few words as part of our evensong and service of rededication of Grace’s bells because it’s important to mark such occasions; to offer some words to put what we’ve done in larger perspective.

It’s easy for us to forget what we have here on this corner of N. Carroll and W. Washington. Sure, Grace is on the national register of historic places. It’s a landmark both literally and by designation, among the oldest churches in Dane County; among the oldest surviving buildings in Downtown Madison. But that’s only part of the story for behind that landmark, behind the stone and mortar are all of the people over the past more than century and half, who have worshiped here—who have been baptized, married, been buried from here. It’s easy to forget the legacy we have inherited from them—the presidents like Grover Cleveland and Harry Truman who worshiped here; senators, governors, and yes, regular people many of them.

It’s easy to forget all that they’ve given us; to ignore it or simply let them and their gifts pass into oblivion. That’s kind of what we did with the bells. Oh, we knew they were up there. We could even play some of them; but no one really remembered their stories. When I went digging in the files to try to figure out exactly what pitches, what sizes they were, there were at least 3 that were unrecorded (and the records we had, after the first nine were very incomplete, written by hand on note pads or lined paper). I myself had never even been up in the tower before this week.

But now, thanks to the persistence of a number of people, among them Conrad Bauman, Greg Rogers, and most recently Peter Schultz-Burkel, as well as Senior Warden John Wood, and all of those who donated to the effort, whose names are listed on the insert, thanks to all of you, we can enjoy Grace’s bells in all their glory.

No doubt part of the reluctance to assess let alone reinstate the bells was due to a lack of knowledge of how much it might cost, and a sense that it might be irresponsible, somehow even unfaithful to God to spend a significant amount of money on a rather frivolous project like this. But what we are doing by preserving and enhancing the bells is being good stewards of the legacy we’ve received. In many respects, we chose to worship here; to be members of and leaders of this congregation in this place, and part of what that means is to take care of, maintain, preserve, and enhance our facilities. It was an offense to that legacy and to those generations of donors, that too many of the bells sat silent for so long. We are honoring the memories of all of those people, from the Proudfits and the anonymous donors of the first 9 bells, right down to Bob and Betty Kurtenacker, who gave one of the last bells, and who many of us remember.

But it’s not just about that legacy. Ultimately the bells are about the worship and presence of God in our congregation and in our community. As I wrote in some of the materials describing the history of Grace’s bells, bells provide people with a sense of God’s presence in the world and in their lives. This was pointed out to me one day this week when I was stopped by someone on the sidewalk in front of the church he told me how the bells ringing reminded him of growing up in Goa India and hearing the bells call the faithful to prayer and rang out at the moment of consecration during the Eucharist.

Bells help us celebrate the great festivals of the church year, and sacraments like weddings; they toll at funerals, as ours did on Friday for Bob Kurtenacker, the funeral boll tolled 100 times to mark the years of his life, and at 6 seconds between each ringing, it took a total of ten minutes.

We worship in many ways, in the privacy of our homes, in silence and meditation, and in joyful song. Our bells fill the air with music and fill the nooks and crannies of the streets and alleys around capitol square. May their sound bring the city joy and remind us all of God’s beauty and presence in our world!










Jesus, Son of David, Have mercy on us: A Sermon for Proper 25B, 2018

 This is a week that has been filled with meetings—with downtown leaders, with the Outreach Committee, the Creating More Just Community group, the taskforce working on issues around the redevelopment of our block, with ecumenical colleagues across the state, with grieving family members, families preparing for baptisms, and couples about to be married. I was so busy that I barely had a chance to take in the excitement of Grace’s participation in the downtown trick-or-treating on Wednesday, when thousands were welcomed to Grace and heard the spooky playing of our own Mark Brampton Smith. I did get to see the photos and videos that Pat posted to our facebook page and show all of the fun and excitement that was taking place.

Accompanying all of that, all week, has been the sound of the bells, as the technicians completed their work in time for this afternoon’s evensong and bells rededication. Many of us are looking ahead to events here at Grace, making plans for the coming months, talking about new opportunities for ministry and mission, or opportunities for deepening relationships among members in the congregation. The excitement is palpable all over Grace and in the soundwaves above and beyond Grace.

This week has also been a week of hatred and violence, with bombs sent in the mail, the killings of African-Americans in Kentucky, and then yesterday the shocking murders of 11 people at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh. Whatever excitement and joy we may feel here at Grace as we gather this morning to celebrate a baptism and as we celebrate our newly refurbished bells is tempered by the grief, sadness, and anger we feel at the deep divisions in our nation, at the violence and hatred that surrounds us and threatens so many. Continue reading