on the sixth day of Christmas (December 30, 2017), my True Love gave to me the gift of hope

Note: These prayers, one for each day of the twelve-day Christmas season, in which my True Love is God, follow the pattern of that well-known 18th century English carol with a number of the days illumined by the observances of the Church calendar.

O gracious God, on this day, repeating an annual cycle – one day’s step from the end of a calendar year and one day’s step from the next – the world equally annually (alway?) seems enshrouded in winter’s gray of indifference and intolerance, inequality and iniquity.

Yet You, O gracious God, pour Your Self into the flesh of a baby of lowest earthly estate born to an unwed mother, laid in a feeding trough for animals,(1) and, hounded by authorities seeking his death, made to be a refugee.(2)

This, Your stupendous story pregnant with expectation, this Your stupefying mystery impregnable to all opposition, bears…is the light of hope that You and Your will, Your Word of Love incarnate(3) conquer all.

Amen.

 

Footnotes:
(1) See Luke 2.1-7
(2) See Matthew 2.13
(3) John 1.14

waiting for Jesus – an Advent-season-prayer-a-day, Day 4, Wednesday, December 6, 2017

 

Note: Advent, from the Latin, adventus, “coming”, is the Christian season of preparation for Jesus’ birth, the heart of the Christmas celebration, and, according to scripture and the Christian creeds, his second appearance on some future, unknown day and also according to scripture and Christian tradition, his daily coming through the Holy Spirit. Hence, the theme of waiting for Jesus is Advent’s clarion call.

O Lord Jesus, I wait this day for the wonder of Your Will. By Your Spirit, renovate my mind and heart, rehabilitate my soul and spirit; make me an abode, indeed, an inn where there alway is room for You. Then, by Your Spirit, daily come and take up residence and so guide, guard, and govern my being that I will be wholly Yours. Amen.

 

all that should have fallen – at a time of tragedy, a Christian prayer

O God, as thousands of Your children gathered under Your gracious canopy of stellar space to celebrate Your gifts of life and music, all that should have fallen as the day ebbed and the night came was the mantle of warm darkness; all that should have fallen upon ready ears attuned to mirth was the wail of the guitar, the beat of the drum, the strains of the human voice singing, telling a story in country song, and the accompaniment of merrymakers joining in gladsome chorus…

What should not have fallen were the bullets, sent down, by the heated, hateful hand of another of Your children, in deliberate rain, falling in a fearsome fusillade…

What should not have fallen were the bodies of Your children struck down, dead or wounded, others scattering, crouching, running in terror…

What should not have fallen to the pitiless ground were the screaming, weeping cries of disbelief, fear, and grief.

O God, as what should have fallen was halted in savage mid-flight by all that should not have fallen, I pray You hail the dead in the heavenly halls of the everlasting Light of Your peaceful Presence, I pray You heal the wounded in mind and heart, soul and spirit, and I pray You hasten the day of Your coming that Your living will that countenances no killing – through Your Spirit, making benevolent habitation in all of Your children – be done on earth as it is in heaven; in the name of Jesus, I beseech You. Amen.

which one?

Epiphany 1-22-17a sermon, based on Matthew 21.23-32, preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on the 17th Sunday after Pentecost, October 1, 2017

Never answer a question with a question, so the olden adage advises, lest one be accused of refusing to engage in honest dialogue or, as bad, seeking to conceal one’s ignorance. Clearly, Jesus was no proponent of this school of thought.

Jesus triumphally entered Jerusalem,[1] then brazenly cleansed the temple of money changers and sellers of animals,[2] thus, disrupting the sacred economy of the institution of ritual sacrifice, and now, self-authorized, has taken up residence in the temple, teaching, preaching. The chief priests and elders charged with maintaining order, demand, “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?”

The Pharisees Question Jesus, James Tissot (1886-1894)

The accusatory tone of these religious leaders is a strong indication that it’s hardly likely they will accept anything Jesus says. Nevertheless, given, again, their role as overseers of the life of worship of their people, God’s people, theirs is a fair question. What does Jesus do? He answers their question with a question to which they plead the fifth, refusing to answer. Jesus doesn’t answer their question, but rather responds with a parable about two sons whose father asks to labor in the vineyard. One says, “No”, but then goes. The other says, “Yes,” but then doesn’t go.

Parable of the Two Sons, James Tissot (1836-1902)

“Which of the two,” Jesus pointedly asks not only those chief priests and elders, but also us, “did the will of his father?”

The one who appears to be, who presents herself, himself to be a follower of Jesus who outwardly does the right things, but whose mind and heart, soul and spirit are far from doing, being the love and justice of the kingdom of God or the one who by all appearances fails, falls from grace time and time again, but finally responds favorably to the call of Jesus, “Follow me”, acting fairly, living faithfully; even if it comes at the proverbial “eleventh hour” of the last breath of life in this world!

Which one are you? Which one am I? Jesus calls you and me to answer and not with a question.

On another, deeper level, I believe the answer to Jesus’ question is neither the one who said, “No”, but did go nor the one who said, “Yes”, but didn’t go, but rather Jesus himself. He was…is the son who when sent to proclaim in word and deed God’s will of self-sacrificial, unconditional love, came among us teaching and preaching, holding out his hands especially to the least, last, and lost, then stretching out his arms, loving us all, from the least to the greatest, to death, his own, that we might be redeemed from sin and death. Jesus is the son we are to imitate.

When Jesus asks us, as he does today and every day, “Which son did the will of his father?”, by the grace of God, let us answer, “You, Jesus, are the one and you, Jesus, are the one we follow that we, your sisters and brothers, God’s daughters and sons, might do, be fulfillments of God’s will.

 

Illustrations:

The Pharisees Question Jesus (Les pharisiens questionnent Jésus) (1886-1894), James Tissot (1836-1902)

Parable of the Two Sons, James Tissot

Footnotes:

[1] Matthew 21.1-11

[2] Matthew 21.12-13

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)

the truest heavenly harvest

1-22-17 a sermon, based on Matthew 13.24-30, 36-43 and the Wisdom of Solomon 12.13, 16-19, preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on the 7th Sunday after Pentecost, July 23, 2017

Imagine. You walk into a room and catch the tail-end of a conversation. You hear what’s being said, but without the preceding context you’re not sure what is meant. You can continue to listen, hoping you’ll finally get it or, being assertive, inquire: “What are you talking about?” Whenever I’ve had the temerity to ask, sometimes, on hearing the answer, it seemed to me that the conversation and its supposed context weren’t at all connected!

This is what occurs to me when I reflect on this morning’s parable.

The Enemy Sowing Tares (weeds), James Tissot (1836-1902)

Jesus’ explanation is so severely dualistic – Son of Man or the devil, good or bad seed, wheat or weeds, the righteous or evildoers – that it doesn’t follow the parable. It’s almost a non sequitur!

Now, in one historical contextual sense, it makes sense. When Matthew wrote his gospel about a generation and a half after Jesus, there were intense conflicts within the Christian community between insiders and outsiders over matters of governance. (This always happens when a dynamic movement begins to undergo the process toward permanence, transforming into an institution.) So, no surprise, the explanation of the parable, which, I believe, is Matthew’s interpretation of Jesus’ teaching, is strikingly either-or.

Now, in a world fuzzy with ambiguity, a little certainty is refreshing, restoring our sense of clarity and security. And in the life of the church, many, perhaps most people are attracted to a proclamation of clear conviction and firm belief. I’d be willing to bet that if I stood outside of our door on Sunday mornings, stopping traffic on Main Street, declaring to all who would listen, “Follow me inside! I’ll show you the bright light of salvation and the solution to all your problems!”, I’d have some, maybe lots of takers! Far more than if I said what I believe: “Come with me and let us together stumble our way toward the light of God’s truth through the fog of life’s ambiguities.”

Yes, a bit of certainty can be attractive, even magnetic! The problem? Life, the world, you and I aren’t like that. We don’t live or, I believe, thrive in hermetically-sealed existences of the purity of clarity. Things, we are complex, thus stubbornly resistant to an either-or reductionism.

This brings us back to the parable about wheat and weeds left to grow together until the harvest.

A parable, from the Greek, para, alongside, and ballo, to throw, is a story tossed next to us; a metaphor that stands parallel to our lives that we, not having been hit in the head directly, might turn aside to see more clearly something that is hard to articulate and perhaps harder to accept. This is why I think that Matthew’s interpretation of the parable, altogether too head-on, doesn’t reflect Jesus’ intent, which, I think, is this…

The field represents anyone and any community. In everyone and in every community, there exists wheat and weeds; that which is healthy and unhealthy, beneficial and harmful, productive and destructive. The harvest, that moment of judgment as to what is which and which is what, will come. At the end of our lives, when we no longer will have the opportunity, the ability to think and feel, to speak and act, to review and revise, to change and correct, no longer leaving undone those things we ought to have done, some estimation or reckoning of our lives will be made; perhaps by us if we are conscious of our coming end and surely by others. Yet while we are in this world, we are bidden to learn, to discern and decide, how to live together with ourselves and with others; all, both wheat and weed, that is in us and in them. We are bidden to learn how to be like God of whom Solomon speaks whose power of judgment is the forbearance of mercy, whose righteousness is kindness.

If we and the whole world would learn live together like that, then the truest harvest will have come, and we will behold a glimpse of the fulfillment of that petition of the Lord’s Prayer, “thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”

 

Illustration: The Enemy Sowing Tares (weeds), James Tissot (1836-1902)

discerning & deciding

I awoke early this morning; the bright numbers of my Fitbit glaring at me: 4.30. In a reflective mood, unable to return to sleep, I arose. Sauntering into the kitchen, thirsting for the first cup of coffee (next to water, truly nature’s nectar), this sobering thought followed, chased me: The worst choices I’ve made in my life – those that yielded less than auspicious results, near or long term, and led me onto a path of life’s struggles – were the direct result of my having confused, indeed, conflated discerning and deciding. One of the most sterling, sagacious moments of my life involved my learning the difference.

Discerning and deciding, in common parlance, are treated as synonyms. However I now know, with a readily, daily conscious conviction, that they are related, but hardly, indeed, never the same.

Discern, from the Latin discernere, meaning “to separate” or “to distinguish”, produces the word discernment. Familiar in church circles, discernment oft is used (sometimes overused, I think, as if everyone is operating in the same realm of understanding, and, in my experience, we aren’t!) regarding processes through which folk are called to ordained ministry and to the various positions of service (read: employment).

For me, discernment, an operative term in my everyday vocabulary, is that ever-recurring, never-ending practice (as long as I live and breathe) – all at once, involving a synthesis of my thoughts and feelings, my observations and opinions, my reflections via memory upon my history, and my intuition through the lenses of soul and spirit – by which I arrive at my truth. By “my truth”, I mean my beliefs about God, who God is, what God does, about life, the way things are in the world and are not (in relation to who God is and what God does), and about myself, who I am and who I am becoming, what I desire and need (in relation to who God is and what God does).

Whenever I first discern, then I can (am able) to decide. Decide, from the Latin decidere, meaning literally “to cut off.” So it is, when I choose one thing or choose to venture in one direction, I cannot also choose the other. And so it is, whenever I’ve not discerned my truth and, nevertheless, decided, my choices have been characterized, corrupted by my ever-human-always-subject-to-selfishness-self-interest. I want it all. Everything at the same time, at all times, on my terms. Simply because this (for me and for anyone!) is impossible doesn’t mean I haven’t tried to do it. And, in trying, I’ve always succeeded in harming myself and others.

Lord, have mercy upon me that, praying alway that grand song of thanksgiving, I will discern, and then do aright:

Happy are those whose way is blameless,

who walk in the law of the Lord.

Happy are those who keep his decrees,

who seek him with their whole heart,

who also do no wrong, but walk in his ways.

You have commanded your precepts to be kept diligently.

O that my ways may be steadfast in keeping your statutes!

Then I shall not be put to shame,

having my eyes fixed on all your commandments.

I will praise you with an upright heart,

when I learn your righteous ordinances.[1]

 

Footnote:

[1] Psalm 119.1-7