Marketplace or Vineyard? A Sermon for Proper 20, Year A, 2017

The wonderful thing about parables is that no matter how often I read or study them, no matter how many sermons I’ve preached on one, there’s always the possibility that I will discover something completely new. The difficult thing about this particular time is that my aha moment came about 7:30 this morning as I was rereading the text I had prepared and first service starts at 8:00 and I had no time to rethink or rewrite the whole sermon in light of my discovery.

What jumped out at me this morning was that the parable takes place in two settings–a vineyard and a marketplace. There’s a rich tradition of symbolism of vineyards in biblical literature. It’s a symbol of God’s abundance and generosity, even the extravagance of God’s grace and creativity. The product of the vineyard–wine is not essential for life but as the old Jewish prayers says, “wine makes glad the heart.” The vineyard can even be a symbol of Israel. Continue reading


A Community of Forgiveness: A Sermon for Proper 19, Year A 2017

Yesterday afternoon, as I was struggling to write this sermon, I accidently opened my ipad and facebook came up. In big, bold letters, dominating the screen, was a quotation from Archbishop Desmond Tutu: “No one is incapable of forgiving and no one is unforgiveable.” Tutu was Archbishop of the Anglican Church of South Africa during the height of apartheid, and after it ended, he chaired the nation’s “Truth and Reconciliation Commission” that attempted to deal with the violence, injustice, and oppression of that nation’s past. Like a bolt from the blue, well actually, the quotation’s background was violet, that little phrase gets to both the power and the difficulty of forgiveness. Continue reading

Remembering Faithfully: A Sermon for Proper 18, Year A, 2017

Christians are a people of memory. We are a community called together by memory; called to remember. Our central act of worship is a memorial and a re-enactment; but more than that we enter into the story itself as we remember God’s saving acts and participate in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

But as we all know, memory is a fickle thing. In our own lives, there are stories we’ve told ourselves, stories about us others have told us that might not bear up to close scrutiny and as we age, some of those stories fade into mist or even oblivion.

As a nation, we are struggling right now with the story we tell about ourselves—as people of color challenge many of the core beliefs and stories of American history. And as we struggle, we enter into conflict because the stories we tell ourselves are often shaped by narrow perspectives. We see how that struggle is played out in the battle over confederate monuments, and in our own Episcopal Church, the battle over stained glass windows and other monuments to the confederacy.

This week, we have seen another crisis in the story we tell ourselves—Are we a nation of immigrants, welcoming all, the tired, the poor, the huddled masses yearning to be free; or will we turn our backs on young people who grew up here—who consider themselves American and often know no other home.

Tomorrow, many of us will remember the events of 9-11-2001, now sixteen years ago. We remember the shock, the devastation, the sudden silence in our skies and on our highways as for a few days, we reckoned with horrific tragedy. But we are less likely, or unwilling to remember the sixteen years of war that have followed from that event, the violence and suffering that has been experienced across the Middle East and into Central Asia; the extrajudicial killings and drone warfare; the torture.

We see that same dynamic played out in scripture, as the authors and editors tell the story they want preserved. At the same time, they often reveal alternative or counter-stories that raise questions about their perspective. Nowhere is this more true than in the story from Hebrew Scripture we just heard; God’s instructions to Moses and the Hebrews on how to prepare for Passover. This event may be the key story in all of Hebrew Scripture—It describes God’s nature as the Hebrews and then Jews experienced God. It also defines the Hebrews and then the Jews as God’s people.

The story of Passover describes God’s liberation of the Hebrew people from bondage. It’s the story that Jews continue to tell and re-enact each year both because it celebrates God’s salvation of God’s chosen people and because it identifies contemporaries Jews as part of that larger story, part of God’s salvation history.

Passover is a celebration of Israel’s liberation by Yahweh; but it is set in the context of a larger story. We’ve heard parts of that story over the last few weeks—of Moses’ birth and rescue by Pharaoh’s daughter, the burning bush and God’s call to him. Between that event and today’s readings unfold the familiar story of the plagues. The instructions for the Passover come in the midst of the tenth plague—Yahweh’s killing of the first-born of Egypt, horrendous suffering.

One might expect that the mood of Passover is joyous, but in the verses that were read, there is a stress on Yahweh’s judgment as well as on liberation. The joy of liberation is tempered by the reality that liberation came at a horrific price. We haven’t heard these weeks the stories of all the other plagues. But this last one, the killing of the firstborn of all Egyptian families, and their livestock, was the culmination of unimaginable violence and suffering. That violence would continue throughout the story—the destruction of the Egyptian army at the Red Sea, and later during the conquest of Canaan, as God demanded that the Hebrews kill everyone whom they encountered. But that will come later.

Back to the story of the Passover. There’s another important element, here. Liberation too is not self-evident. The command to eat while dressed for a journey and to eat hurriedly gives yet another note of urgency. The Hebrews may be free, but their enemies were pursuing them.

The raw emotion and violence of the Passover narrative might tempt us to try to smooth its rough edges, to re-interpret it so as to better fit our world view. That would be a mistake. The Passover is the central ritual event in Judaism; its message and its re-enactment have played the leading role in how Jews understand themselves. The instructions to eat hurriedly, dressed as for a journey, put contemporary Jews back into the story of the flight from Egypt. Today’s Jews become Hebrews fleeing Pharaoh as they eat their lamb, bitter herbs, and unleavened bread.

Indeed, Passover is so important in the life of Judaism that early Christians had to reinterpret Passover as they developed their own rituals and theology. Thus, in the Gospel of John, Jesus is crucified as the Passover lamb; in Matthew, Mark, and Luke, the last supper Jesus shared with his disciples was the Passover meal, and thus our own Eucharist and our Christology borrow heavily from Passover imagery.

But there is a deep problem here. One the one hand, we have the image of a God, who hears the suffering of God’s people, and intervenes on their behalf. God frees them from their slavery in Egypt and promises that they will possess a fertile land. On the other hand, in the course of gaining their freedom, God wreaks vengeance on the Egyptians. The story of the plagues, read carefully raises profound questions about the nature of God and God’s willingness to destroy human and animal life. Indeed, it is not at clear in the story that either Pharaoh or the Egyptians have any power to avoid the horrible fates that awaited them. They certainly were not given a choice to avoid the final plague. At one point, God told Moses that he was bringing this last plague, the killing of the first-born on Egypt so that “my wonders may be multiplied.”

There’s even today’s psalm which praises God’s vengeance against Israel’s enemies and concludes that all of it is “glory for God’s chosen people.”

It is an image of God with which we should be uncomfortable—hearing this lesson with its promise of the destruction of all the first-born of Egypt, not just humans mind you, but even cattle, that language should make us squirm in our pews. We might be tempted, many of us have been, to put that language and imagery down to the Angry God of the Old Testament, and contrast it with the loving God of the new. That is one of the oldest heresies on the books, and it’s flat out misinterpreting both the Old Testament and the New. There’s plenty of wrath and judgment in the New Testament’s depiction of God, and plenty of love and mercy in the Old Testament’s—we see that in today’s reading from Romans, in which Paul says twice that “love is the fulfilling of the law.”

We are gathering on this beautiful Sunday in Madison as Hurricane Irma has struck the Florida Keys and is moving up the Gulf Coast. We have already seen its destruction in the Caribbean Islands, while residents of Texas deal with the aftermath of Harvey. There was an earthquake in Mexico, and wildfires are raging in the west. The extent and number of these events are apocalyptic; they may remind us of the plagues of Egypt

We look at such events and seek explanations. The size of the hurricanes and fires may in part be attributed to climate change, but the reality of natural disasters, earthquakes, hurricanes, and wildfires cause great damage and cost lives. We want to know why. And sometimes, we want to attribute such events to divine agency; that they are God’s judgment on us, or on the inhabitants of those places where they are occurring. But such attempts are misguided—as Jesus says in Matthew, “the rain falls on the just and the unjust.”

Instead, we should remember another important lesson from our reading of Exodus—God hears and responds to the cries of those who suffer. In the Christian tradition, we see God in Jesus Christ, walking with us, suffering, and dying on the cross. It’s a symbol of God’s presence in the midst of all of the evil and suffering in the world. We should look for signs of God’s presence, God’s love and grace, wherever people suffer, in floods and hurricanes, in the rubble of bombed cities.

As God’s people, we are also called to hear the cries of those who suffer—from hurricanes and earthquakes, yes, but also the cries of the hungry and homeless, the fearful and the hurting. More than that, we are called to respond to those cries, to work to end their pain, to bring justice and liberation to the oppressed, the enslaved, the incarcerated.

And to bring us full circle, we are called by God, as a people and community of memory, to tell honest stories, about ourselves and about God. Yes, we should celebrate the liberation we have experienced; we should remember and give thanks for the blessings God has given us, but we should also remember and mourn the price that was paid for that liberation and those blessings—the people who suffered because of them, the people who still suffer, and we should, when necessary, repent.




Questioning God, Called by God: A Sermon for Proper 17, Year A, 2017

Last Sunday, Jesus asked his disciples two questions: “Who do people say that I am?” And “Who do you say that I am?” I invited you to reflect on those questions and am looking forward to hearing from some of you what you’ve thought as you’ve wrestled with them. In today’s reading from the Hebrew Bible, Moses asks God a question. At its heart, it’s a simple one: “Who are you, God?” But God’s answer is anything but simple and opens up to us an infinity of questions. In a few minutes I will invite you to follow Moses’ lead and ask questions of God. But first, let’s explore the text. Continue reading

Who do you say that I am? A Sermon for Proper 16, Year A, 2017

I’ve mentioned before that geography is important to the gospel writers. Each of them uses geographical details in slightly different ways, but paying attention to where events are said to take place, paying attention to Jesus’ itinerary, helps elucidate larger themes in the gospels’ portrayal of Jesus. Continue reading

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

In around fifty days, the Beacon, Madison’s long-overdue day resource center for the homeless, is scheduled to open. It’s a project I’ve been involved in off and on for six years and I now serve on the Beacon’s Community Advisory Team. The Beacon is intended to provide a one-stop location for services for individuals and families, providing everything from showers and laundry facilities to lunch, employment and other services. Construction is nearing completion.

As with any project of this magnitude, there are bumps along the road. One of the most significant came to public attention this week when it was revealed that there is a significant gap in providing funding for ongoing operations. Details are here.

The community’s response has been disappointing. I read responses on social media from  homeless advocates that focused on the original process that resulted in granting Catholic Charities the contract to operate the Beacon. Advocates have also questioned the size of the annual operating budget. I would hope that advocates would focus their energies on the Beacon’s success.

The city is reluctant to provide additional funding. In the linked article, Jim O’Keefe suggested cutting the operating budget, even though it is based on in-depth study of best practices in such facilities across the country. And given the city’s track record with the Rethke Terrace Housing First project, where the operating budget didn’t initially cover the services necessary to succeed, its top priority should be providing adequate funding.

I’m optimistic that this problem will be solved and that the Beacon will open on schedule. It’s certainly the single most important development in our community’s response to homelessness since I arrived in Madison in 2009, and it may be the most important such development since the founding of the men’s drop-in shelter.

In the meantime, let’s encourage the stakeholders to sit down and figure out how to fund the Beacon in such a way that its mission to provide services to homeless people, to help them transition from the streets to permanent housing, and to flourish as human beings, is a success.


But she persisted: A Sermon for Proper 15, Year A, 2017

I taught religious studies for fifteen years and over that time, although I’m not particularly proud of it, I drove any number of students to tears. Now, many of those I don’t know about—the grades they received were disappointing; the work I assigned too arduous. But there were a half a dozen times that students began to cry during class. Usually, it was because I was doing one of those things I thought faculty in the Humanities ought to do—force students to examine their beliefs and assumptions, to think about why they thought the way they did, to challenge them to examine themselves and their most deeply held values.

One of the first times it happened was when we were discussing the gospel reading we heard today. I offered what I thought was a very straightforward, non-controversial, even obvious interpretation of the text. Jesus and his disciples are walking around in foreign, Gentile territory. A woman comes up to them and asks Jesus to heal her daughter. First, Jesus simply ignores her. His disciples, his security team try to get rid of her, and Jesus adds a putdown: “You’re not my problem.” But she persisted, using language evocative of the language Peter used when he was drowning in last week’s Gospel, “Lord, help me.”

Now, Jesus is really annoyed. He basically calls her a dog, saying that it’s not appropriate for him to share with her what he has. But still she has a retort, and gets the better of him—“Yes, but even dogs get the scraps from the master’s table.”

It’s not a comforting story and I get why the student was disturbed by it. It was probably my summary of his behavior as “Jesus was a jerk” that set her off. Jesus is not portrayed in the best of lights, and in the end a woman, a Gentile woman at that, gets the better of him in a contest of wits. For nearly two millennia, Christians have tried to put a positive spin on this story—Jesus was testing her; his statement at the end, that she had great faith, lets us disregard the difficult elements in the story. But I want to challenge that today. The rather straightforward reading is, I think, the one that opens to us new ways of thinking about Jesus, about the good news of God’s reign, and about our own assumptions and blind spots.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m with Jesus in this encounter. I understand where he’s coming from. It’s hard for me to walk around Capitol Square without being confronted by someone who wants me to help them. Ask our volunteer receptionists. They can tell you how many phone calls we get, or how many people walk into the reception area seeking assistance. And their stories are heartbreaking. They need a bus pass, or money for gas, or to pay their rent, or to buy a prescription. Often, like Jesus, I cut them off before they’re able to tell me their story. If I helped out everyone who asked, I would run out of funds by the end of the week and that would be it for well, who knows how long… And however awful their situation might be, however much they might need help, it’s likely that next week, someone with an even more heartbreaking story would come to me, asking for help.

So I’m with Jesus here. I’ve only got so much time, so much energy, and limited funds, and the need is so great. It’s easier to ignore them to turn them away, to dis them, than to listen and respond. But the thing is, sometimes people are persistent. They won’t be put off; they won’t take no for an answer, and when I tell them to come back next week, they do. Sometimes, they tell me their whole story, and in response I do what I can to help them.

There’s a larger lesson, here, however. It’s not just that Jesus finally responds to the woman’s request; there’s also the whole context to take into account. Jesus and his disciples have travelled outside their comfort zone. So far in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus has spent most of his time in his home region of Galilee, visiting the towns and villages along the Sea of Galilee. He’s made at least two trips across the Sea of Galilee. We saw one of those trips in last Sunday’s gospel reading. Now he’s gone in the other direction toward the Mediterranean coast. He’s outside of traditional Jewish territory, beyond Herod’s kingdom, into the Roman Province of Syria. It’s Gentile territory, and while it’s likely there were Jewish communities to which they’re headed, it’s a mixed population.

Another thing to point out. Matthew identifies this woman as Canaanite. It’s a rather odd, even anachronistic designation, because it hearkens back centuries to the period of the Judges and the monarchy, even earlier to the conquest. For then, the native population was labeled Canaanite. It’s not a term used for the non-Jewish population in the Roman period. In his telling of the story, Mark labels her Syro-Phoenician. It’s almost as if Matthew wants to emphasize her otherness—her non-Jewishness, the extent to which an encounter with her would be offensive to an observant Jew.

It’s this woman, by gender voiceless and powerless, by ethnicity and religion, totally other, to be avoided, it is this woman who comes to Jesus in search of help for her daughter, and Jesus first ignores her, then refers to her as a dog. I won’t use it, but you know what epithet in contemporary English would fit this situation.

But she persisted. Her need is so great, the love of her child so powerful, that she brushes off Jesus’ lack of concern and his verbal cruelty and offers a retort. “So you think I’m a dog, Jesus. Well, even dogs are given the scraps from the master’s table.”

And with that response, she wins the argument, beating Jesus at his own game. Now, he is shocked out of his complacency, his eyes that were clouded by prejudice, his heart, cold because she wasn’t one of those he understood to be his mission area, opened to her need. Jesus is transformed by her words and her need and he heals her daughter.

There may be no more appropriate gospel for the time in which we live than this little story. We are living in perilous, troubled times. The fabric of our nation seems to be tearing apart. After Charlottesville and the renewed challenge to Confederate monuments across the country, the growing threat of white supremacy and protests against it, we have become aware of the deep pain felt by People of Color in this nation, especially African-Americans. We have been awakened to their fear, the fear of the LGBT community, the fears of all those who value diversity, a multi-racial, religiously pluralistic society.

Many of us want to say in response to those challenges—This is not America, this is not who we are. Many of us want to say, when Christianity is implicated in racism and white supremacy, those people aren’t really Christian, they don’t understand the gospel; they don’t follow Jesus; the Episcopal Church is different.

Not so fast. Are we walking with Jesus on those roads in the region of Tyre and Sidon? Are we the disciples who want to protect Jesus from a truth-telling foreign woman who is making a scene? Are we like Jesus, who sees that truth-telling woman as an annoyance, a distraction from what’s really important?

Can we see her for who she is, a truth-teller, a prophet, a woman who challenges us to see her in a new way? Can we open our hearts to the possibility of transformation; to see in ourselves the racism, misogyny, and privilege that she is calling out? Can we see the possibilities that an ever-expanding notion of the love of Christ might mean in our world and community today? Can our hearts be opened by the cries for justice and mercy that surround us?