a restless prayer in perilous times

my-hands-2-27-17O Lord, our God, our times are perilous; our days o’ershadowed by threat of war, our nights, enshrouded by fear of what sorrow, whether on this land or half a world away, may befall before next light. Rocketry’s spears aim skyward, targets in sight, tipped with bombs; the only purpose of launch to rain doom and death. Leaders, comme des enfants terribles, trumpeting infantile bellicose threats of annihilation, disfigure the face of diplomacy and threaten to make nonviolent, even if uneasy resolution less an imagined ideal and more an impossibility.

O Lord, our God, though You ne’er herald our liberty from all trial and tribulation nor that our hearts ne’er will be made anxious by what transpires in time and space at the hands of despotic human wills, You alway assure, come what may, come whene’er, as Your Apostle saith, “that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from (Your) love in Christ Jesus our Lord.”[1] By Your Spirit, O Lord, our God, speaking, breathing through us “with sighs too deep for words,”[2] let us pray for Your presence and power to cleave to the impregnable peace of this Your eternal promise.

Amen.

 

Footnotes:

[1] Romans 8.38-39

[2] Romans 8.26

Jesus, the subversive

Note: At yesterday morning’s service, as I ended my sermon, an additional word about the appointed gospel (Matthew 13.31-33, 44-52) occurred to me, which I shared during announcements. It rarely surprises me when things other than what I intended to say come to mind, for I am a person of constant second (third, fourth, fifth, sixth…on and on) thoughts. I cannot recreate precisely what I said, but it was something like this…

Jesus launched a movement, going out into his first century world to share in word and deed the near presence of the kingdom of heaven, indeed, of God. The church, founded on Jesus’ life and labor, is an institution. Throughout human history, whatever the endeavor, in the transition from precipitating origin to permanent organization, something can be lost. At times, I wonder whether we, two millennia later, run the risk of domesticating Jesus, thus, losing any sense of his radical, revolutionary nature. Looking again at this morning’s series of five parables, I focus on the first three, for they reveal, expose Jesus’ subversive edginess.

Jesus, as a storyteller, as all good storytellers, employed familiar images and ideas, which his listeners readily recognized. Yet he frequently, outrageously turned those images and ideas on their proverbial heads, catching people unawares, arresting their attention. I picture Jesus leading us to a comfortable chair in which a long, sharp tack is embedded, inviting us to sit, all the while hoping we have not lost our sensitivity to new ways of thinking, of seeing our lives and world.

So, today…

The Parable of the Mustard Seed, Jan Luyken (1649-1712)

The kingdom of heaven is like a tiny mustard seed that grows into a great tree where birds make their nests. No, it doesn’t! The mustard seed is small, but the mustard plant is no tree, but a weed (a shocking comparison when the fabled cedars of Lebanon would be a far better image!) that, spreading quickly, is difficult, impossible to uproot. Ah, this is the nature of God’s kingdom!

The Parable of the Leaven, John Everett Millais (1829-1896)

The kingdom of heaven is like a woman (a shocking comparison in a first century patriarchal society!) mixing yeast (another shocking comparison, for yeast was an ancient symbol of unrighteousness!) in three measures of flour, which was a vast amount, yielding bread able to feed multitudes. Ah, this is the nature of God’s kingdom!

The Parable of the Hidden Treasure (c. 1630), Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn (1606-1669)

The kingdom of heaven is like a hidden treasure in a field (so far, so good!) that a man finds, then hides (uh oh!), then sells all of his possessions and buys the field; all of which amounts to thievery! In Jesus day, a similar parable was in circulation. A man had a field with a buried treasure, but he did not know it. He died, bequeathing the field to his son, who later sold it. The buyer, plowing the field, discovered the treasure.[1] This version of the tale eliminates the immorality. Jesus, in his telling, retains it. Ah, this is the nature of God’s kingdom! It is treasure, yet one, once found, that always calls, challenges, confronts us with choices between righteousness and unrighteousness.

Ah, Jesus, a storyteller with the soul of a subversive!

 

Illustrations:

The Parable of the Mustard Seed, Jan Luyken (1649-1712)

The Parable of the Leaven, John Everett Millais (1829-1896)

The Parable of the Hidden Treasure (c. 1630), Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn (1606-1669)

Footnote:

[1] Gospel of Thomas 109

seemingly

(Jesus) entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying. But Martha was distracted by her many tasks; so she came to him and asked, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.” But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things. There is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.” (Luke 10.38-42)

Christ in the House of Martha and Mary (1655), Jan Vermeer van Delft (1632-1675)

Today, according to the Episcopal Church calendar, is the feast day of Mary and Martha of Bethany. I love these two sisters and the Bible’s honest portrayal of a bit of domestic discord; a seemingly fussy Martha fuming at a seemingly indolent Mary for not lending a hand in the kitchen.

I say “seemingly”, first, in defense of both. Each, in her way, offered the sacred duty of hospitality to Jesus. Martha in her meal preparation (though perhaps in her harried state, raising a banging-pots-and-pans ruckus!). Mary in her attentive (and, in her era, as a woman sitting at the feet of a rabbi, radical) act of listening to Jesus’ teaching.

I say “seemingly”, secondly, in defense of Mary. For many years, whenever I’ve preached this text, whatever my intended point, most folk (their perceptions, I think, consciously or unconsciously influenced by a Protestant work ethic) take sides, applauding Martha’s industry whilst demeaning Mary’s lethargy; though there are a few who see in Mary a model disciple of one who sits to learn God’s word, eventually rising to do God’s will.

Whether Martha or Mary, in this choosing, championing one over the other, I observe that we humans have an affection or at least an appreciation for the seeming (ah, there’s a form of that word again!) certainty of either-or. As I read and reflect on this story, I choose both-and; Martha and Mary representing, respectively, the active and contemplative aspects of our human nature.

By application, I experience daily, no, constantly an inner tension between my human doing and my human being. To date, given my formative and engrained familial tutelage, my doing has framed my sense of my self far more than my being; though my intuition tells me it should be the other way ‘round! So, refusing to choose one or the other, what if I sought to become an active contemplative and a contemplative actor? What if, in all of my doing, I always sought to bring to conscious remembrance and guidance the teachings of Jesus? What if, in all of my study of God’s word, I always sought to envision what it would look like if, when I was doing it?

My dearest sisters, Martha and Mary, whether in the scripture or within me, I love you. Each and both. Equally. So, together let us sit to learn and rise to do, always and in all ways.

 

Illustration: Christ in the House of Martha and Mary (1655), Jan Vermeer van Delft  (1632-1675)

a-Lenten-prayer-a-day, day 40 and final, Holy Saturday, April 15, 2017

my-hands-2-27-17Note: As a personal, spiritual discipline, I write a prayer for each of the forty days of Lent; each petition focusing on a theme, truly, relating to a care or concern weighing on my mind and heart, at times, vexing my soul and spirit…

The Dead Christ, Philippe de Champaigne (1602-1674)

On Holy Saturday: O Jesus, on this day, dead, Your Body lay in the tomb.[1] I pray You, by Your Spirit, fortify my faith, granting unto me peace with my death, whene’er and howe’er it is to come; and, as God, Your God, my God, raised You from the dead, also give unto me the sureness of trust of my rising to Life with You in Your eternal Presence of Love. Amen.

 

Illustration: The Dead Christ, Philippe de Champaigne (1602-1674)

Footnote:

[1] See John 19.38-42: Joseph of Arimathea, who was a disciple of Jesus…asked Pilate to let him take away the body of Jesus. Pilate gave him permission; so he came and removed his body. Nicodemus, who had at first come to Jesus by night, also came, bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, weighing about a hundred pounds. They took the body of Jesus and wrapped it with the spices in linen cloths, according to the burial custom of the Jews. Now there was a garden in the place where he was crucified, and in the garden there was a new tomb in which no one had ever been laid. And so, because it was the Jewish day of Preparation, and the tomb was nearby, they laid Jesus there.

a-Lenten-prayer-a-day, day 39, Good Friday, April 14, 2017

my-hands-2-27-17Note: As a personal, spiritual discipline, I write a prayer for each of the forty days of Lent; each petition focusing on a theme, truly, relating to a care or concern weighing on my mind and heart, at times, vexing my soul and spirit…

On Good Friday: O Jesus, through Your life and ministry, especially with the disenfranchised and dispossessed, the least and the last, all whom You claimed as first in the sight of Your Abba, Father, You confronted and convicted the status quo of power and privilege held in the hands of the few and lorded over the many.

For this, You, Love and Justice incarnate, by fear and hatred were condemned and crucified.

For this, You, Who welcomed all, were deceived by one of Your own with a betraying kiss from bitter lips, despised by those into whose hands You were led, denied and deserted by Your followers and, as You, from the Cross of Your suffering and dying, dared to cry out, by God.[1]

Crucifixion (1894), Nikolai Nikolaevich Ge (1831-1894)

As the prophesied sword of anguish pierced the soul of the watching, weeping Blessed Mary, Your mother,[2] by the power of Your Spirit, erect and establish Your cross at the heart of my living, that I, dying to my selfish-self, never abandon You in the disenfranchised and dispossessed, the last and the least, the still constantly crucified of this world. Amen.

Pieta (c.1560), Luis de Morales (1512-1586)

 

Illustrations:

Crucifixion (1894), Nikolai Nikolaevich Ge (1831-1894)

Pieta (c.1560), Luis de Morales (1512-1586)

Footnotes:

[1] See Matthew 27.46 and Mark 15.34: And about three o’clock Jesus cried with a loud voice, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” that is, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

Amidst his sorrow, sensing his abandonment by God, I take great heart that Jesus did not abandon, forsake, or otherwise forswear God. For Jesus, relying on scripture (Psalm 22.1; my emphasis), cried, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” His abiding address to God as “my” I interpret as his bounden belief in and continued call upon the One in whom he placed his ultimate trust.

[2] See Luke 2.25-35 (especially verses 34-35, my emphasis): There was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon; this man was righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit rested on him. It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. Guided by the Spirit, Simeon came into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him what was customary under the law, Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying, “Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.” And the child’s father and mother were amazed at what was being said about him. Then Simeon blessed them and said to his mother Mary, “This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed, and a sword will pierce your own soul too.”

a-Lenten-prayer-a-day, day 38, Maundy Thursday, April 13, 2017

my-hands-2-27-17Note: As a personal, spiritual discipline, I write a prayer for each of the forty days of Lent; each petition focusing on a theme, truly, relating to a care or concern weighing on my mind and heart, at times, vexing my soul and spirit…

The Last Supper (La Céne) (1886-1894), James Tissot (1836-1902)

On Maundy[1] Thursday: O Jesus, on this day, recalling Your words, “My flesh is true food and My blood is true drink,”[2] I reverence Your institution of Your Supper, the Sacrament of the sacrifice of Your Body and Blood. As I partake of Your precious gift of Your Self, by Your Spirit, renew in me Your promise that “Those who eat My flesh and drink My Blood abide in Me, and I in them.”[3] Amen.

 

Illustration: The Last Supper (La Céne) (1886-1894), James Tissot (1836-1902)

Footnotes:

[1] This day in Holy Week, in some Christian locales and practices, is called Holy Thursday. The word “maundy” is derived from the Latin mandatum; the first word of the phrase, Mandatum novum do vobis ut diligatis invicem sicut dilexi vos, “A new commandment I give unto you: That you love one another; as I have loved you, that you also love one another” (John 13.34); that statement by which Jesus explained the significance of washing the feet of his disciples. “Maundy”, also drawn from the Latin mandare, meaning “to command”, references Jesus institution or establishment of the Lord’s Supper, saying, “Do this in remembrance of Me” (Luke 22.19; 1 Corinthians 11.24, 25).

[2] John 6.55

[3] John 6.56

a-Lenten-prayer-a-day, day 37, Wednesday in Holy Week, April 12, 2017

my-hands-2-27-17Note: As a personal, spiritual discipline, I write a prayer for each of the forty days of Lent; each petition focusing on a theme, truly, relating to a care or concern weighing on my mind and heart, at times, vexing my soul and spirit…

On dying & death in the spirit of Saint Thérèse of Lisieux (subtitle: I believe):[1] O Lord, I believe in mortality…

Daily, I examine the progression of life in this world and, e’en when peering through a lens of light and joy, there is, undeniably, “change and decay in all around I see.”[2]

And, daily, I experience the inexorable procession of mine aging; the “change and decay” in me of slower thought and shorter memory, sinew less supple and strength swifter spent.

Yea, so it is I believe that this life in this world is an inherently terminal proposition, and, one day, I know that I will die.

Yet, O Lord, I believe also (and more!) in You. I believe that You have not brought me this far to leave me.[3] I believe that on my dying day, as I have known what is temporal and spatial, physical and perishable, I forever finally fully will know what is spiritual and eternal.[4]

O Lord, by Your Spirit, grant me greater faith that, on my goin’ up yonder[5] day, I, with gratitude undying, fail not to fear not coming to You to behold You by sight face to face. Amen.

Footnotes:

[1] Saint Thérèse of Lisieux Saint Thérèse of Lisieux (1873-1897), Roman Catholic Carmelite nun revered for the simplicity and practicality of her approach to the spiritual life, on her deathbed was heard to have murmured, “I am not dying. I am entering into life.”

[2] From one of my favorite hymns, Abide with me, by Henry Francis Lyte (1793-1847). The full text of verse 2:

Swift to its close ebbs out life’s little day;

Earth’s joys grow dim; its glories pass away;

Change and decay in all around I see;

O Thou who changest not, abide with me.

[3] From the gospel song, I Don’t Feel No Ways Tired (1978) by Curtis Burrell:

I don’t feel no ways tired,

I come too far from where I started from.

Nobody told me that the road would be easy,

I don’t believe He brought me this far to leave me.

[4] This prayer is born out of my understanding of two of the Apostle Paul’s teachings: For we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens…For while we are still in this tent, we groan under our burden, because we wish not to be unclothed but to be further clothed, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life. He who has prepared us for this very thing is God, who has given us the Spirit as a guarantee (2 Corinthians 5.1, 4-5) and Flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable…For this perishable body must put on imperishability, and this mortal body must put on immortality. When this perishable body puts on imperishability, and this mortal body puts on immortality, then the saying that is written will be fulfilled, “Death has been swallowed up in victory” (1 Corinthians 15.50b, 53-54).

[5] My reference to the gospel song Goin’ Up Yonder (1994) by Walter Hawkins, especially the words: As God gives me grace I’ll run this race until I see my Savior face to face. I’m goin’ up yonder to be with my Lord.