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

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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.

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

The Third Time wasn’t the Charm: A Sermon for Proper 24B, 2018

We’re drawing near to the end of our reading of the Gospel of Mark this year. The past weeks, we have been accompanying Jesus and his disciples as they walk toward Jerusalem. They are now in Judea, the province where Jerusalem is located. As they near Jerusalem, the dangers and possibilities that await them come to dominate the narrative. It’s as if they can see the temple mount on the horizon as they walk.

We don’t know what the disciples were expecting. From Mark’s depiction of them, it seems likely that they thought they had signed up for a divine mission; that when Jesus arrived in Jerusalem and confronted Rome, God would intervene in history and restore the Kingdom of David and the Kingdom of God. Continue reading

Jesus loved him: A Sermon for Proper 23, Year B, 2018

I’ve been thinking about gratitude a lot recently. It’s stewardship season at Grace, so there’s that of course, and we focused on stewardship and gratitude at recent diocesan clergy and leadership days last month. But it’s more than that. As we see growth in our congregation and new efforts to reach out into our community and to develop deeper relationships among our community and most importantly with Jesus Christ, I am overwhelmed with a sense of gratitude for the people here and our shared ministry and mission. I’m grateful to have been called to this congregation nine years ago; I’m grateful for our amazing staff and committed lay leadership, I’m grateful for the challenges presented us by an uncertain future in a changing world… Well, I could go on and on but I hope you see my point.

We have begun our stewardship campaign for 2019. We are in a strong and exciting place in our common life and our community and I pray that together we will develop the resources that will make possible new ministries and programs, and strengthen our current offerings and deepen relationships among us.

To mention stewardship on the Sunday when we hear this gospel reading is perhaps ironic, if not exactly offensive. This story is challenging on so many levels but it confronts with uncomfortable questions about our relationship to our financial assets, and the connection between our relationship with Jesus, discipleship, if you will, and money. And those challenges are also present when we think about how we will support Grace’s ministry and mission in the coming year.

Today’s gospel confronts us with two questions. The first question is asked by a rich man: “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus’ disciples ask the second question after hearing Jesus’ words: “Then who can be saved?”

Committed Christians reside in the interstices between these two questions, seeking salvation but profoundly challenged by Jesus’ words. Because Jesus’ words are so unsettling, because they amaze us, even as they amazed Jesus’ disciples, as Mark reports. Over the centuries Christians have done any number of things to soften the edge of his words: “It is easier for a camel to go pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.”

Those words are so difficult for us to hear, because, like the disciples, we wonder. These are hard words that Jesus says, words that put is in a hard place. If it is the case, if it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God, then salvation is impossible. So we try to weasel out of the hardness of the place. We tell ourselves, we aren’t rich, not like the really rich, not like Bill Gates. So Jesus wasn’t talking to us.

Then we look for another escape route. There’s always the possibility that Jesus didn’t mean what he said or didn’t say what Mark has him say. Or my favorite interpretation, that there was a gate in Jerusalem, called the “eye of the needle” through which a camel could squeeze with difficulty. In other words, these difficult words aren’t meant for us, we’re middle class, not wealthy; and camels can get through the eye of the needle after all. So let’s all breathe a sigh of relief and go about our business.

It’s important to remember that the man did not come to Jesus in search of financial advice, or in response to Jesus hitting him up for a donation. He has come for help. He approaches Jesus because he wants to know how to attain eternal life, how to enter the kingdom of God, of which Jesus preaches. He addresses Jesus with humility, bowing down before him, calling him “Good teacher.”

Jesus’ response is challenging—not simply because he challenges the rich man, but because he challenges us as well. His response to the man is to remind him of his obligations under Jewish law. In a nutshell, Jesus is saying, keep the commandments. The man asserts that he maintains his obligations to the Jewish law.

From a traditional, twenty-first century Christian perspective, the whole of this interchange between Jesus and the man is jarring. Things don’t seem to make sense. Jesus’ response to the man ought to be, “accept Jesus Christ as your personal savior;” or “have faith in me,” or even “I am the way, the truth and the life.” Instead Jesus tells him, keep the law. Furthermore, when the man insists that he does keep the commandments, that, in essence, he is a good Jew, Jesus doesn’t respond with words to the effect that keeping the law is impossible, righteousness under the law doesn’t work. Instead, he gives him another command: “Go, sell all that you have, give it to the poor, and come, follow me.” Doing that will give the man treasures in heaven, it will bring him into the kingdom of God.

But of course, the man finds those commands much harder to follow than the 10 commandments. Now we learn something new about him. Mark tells us for the first time, that he has great possessions and he can’t give them up. So he leaves Jesus. His desire to share in the kingdom of God, his desire to walk with Jesus, to be a disciple was not as intense as his desire to continue living the life he had, to enjoy his possessions.

There’s another detail in the story that is very important. After Mark reports the man’s response to Jesus’initial statement, Mark tells us that “Jesus loved him.” At first hearing, we may find such a statement completely unremarkable, but in fact, it is almost unique. Only one other time in the gospel of Mark does the writer use the word “love”—that is when Jesus recites the two great commandments, to love God and to love neighbor. In other words, Mark never says elsewhere in the gospel, that Jesus loves someone.

Jesus loved him. So his challenge to the man “to go, sell all that you have and give it to the poor, then come follow me” is not a condition of Jesus’ relationship to the man, but a response to the possibility of such relationship. Jesus loved him, and because he loved him, he told him to sell all that he had and to follow him.

These simple words challenge us, and challenge every interpretation of this encounter that we might have. In the first place, Jesus doesn’t simply tell the man, follow me. No, he adds conditions. In Mark’s version of Jesus’ calling of the disciples, Jesus words are simply, follow me. But here, Jesus adds conditions, demands. Go, sell, give, come and follow me. For this man, it seems, it’s not enough to follow Jesus, he must also turn his back on all that he has, publicly renounce it.

But then, even though he turns away from Jesus, we are told that Jesus loves him. Does it mean simply that Jesus feels sorry for him, that he has compassion on him? But no, it isn’t because the man turned away in shock after Jesus’ words. Jesus loved him and then said to him, Go, sell what you own.” Jesus commands were in response to his love of the man.

The man stood on the edge of a great opportunity. Having asked Jesus a question of eternal significance, he received an answer of equal significance. But it wasn’t simply a matter of the man’s eternal fate. It was also about a relationship. To give up his possessions would have meant to accept, in radical and complete openness, the love of Jesus Christ.

Like the man, we kneel before Jesus, full of questions and uncertainty. We are drawn to him, to his words of love and hope, to the possibilities of forgiveness and healing, in gratitude for all we have received from God through Jesus Christ. Perhaps the little exercise at the beginning of the sermon opened your hearts in a new way to how you experience Christ’s love at Grace Church and through Grace Church.

May we in these weeks and months filled with planning for the next year, may we hold in our hearts and minds the awareness of Jesus’ love for us, that we are called to follow him, and to share that love with others. May our giving and commitment to Grace reflect that love and mission.

 

 

 

Sometimes, crumbs are more than enough: A Sermon for Proper 18B, 2018

In addition to today being the Wisconsin Ironman Triathlon, it is in church parlance, the beginning of the program year. Our choir is back after its summer hiatus and Christian education for children and adults begins as well. This week, we are beginning something we’ve not done in quite some time at Grace, at least not on a regular, consistent basis. We will be offering two bible studies—one begins today, between the services; the other takes place on Thursday evening at 5:30. I hope some of you will take advantage of these opportunities, for engaging more deeply with scripture is essential to deepening your faith and your experience with Jesus Christ. Continue reading