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

“Greetings, favored one!”

a sermon, based on Luke 1.26-38, preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on the 4th Sunday of Advent, December 24, 2017

Reading again and reflecting anew on this story, commonly called the Annunciation, I think about our life’s stories, and I see in Mary a model for us of how to face the many sorts of announcements that come to us. Each of the following announcements, I either have experienced or, through nearly forty years of pastoral ministry, I have heard from the lips of others about their lives…

An executor of an estate announces that you are the beneficiary of the generous bequest of a loved one. An IRS agent announces you are the subject of an audit…

An employer announces that you have been promoted with increased responsibility and recompense or you have been transferred or discharged…

A partner or spouse arrives home announcing a new job opportunity requiring a reconfiguration of family finances or a geographical move…

A partner, spouse, or long-lived friend announces a change in your relationship – a greater connectedness or distance…

A therapist announces the next step in your hard-fought, long-sought journey toward wholeness…

A physician announces that your medical condition or that of a loved one has improved or has worsened.

Each of these annunciation experiences, desired or undesired, raises the specter of the unfamiliar, the uncertain, making it sometimes hard to know what to do. Mary, again, as a model for us, shows us how to be in the moment, listening, waiting for a clarifying revelation.

The Annunciation (1898), Henry Ossawa Tanner (1859-1937)

Gabriel appears. “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” Though Mary is familiar with the lore of her people Israel about how God speaks through angelic messengers, she has heard no such word. Now, she has and she is perplexed.

“Do not be afraid, for you have found favor with God.” Mary would conceive and bear a son, Jesus, who would reign on the throne of David in an everlasting kingdom. For an oppressed people in an occupied land overrun by the Roman Empire, this is a thrilling word of hope, fulfilling an age-old prophecy of liberation.

But Mary is a virgin, thus, Gabriel’s message abounds with logical and biological impossibilities. “How can this be?”

“The Holy Spirit will come upon you.” Then Gabriel offers an anticipatory sign, a revelation concerning Elizabeth, who “also conceived…(although she) was said to be barren; for nothing (is) impossible with God.”

“Here I am…let it be with me according to your word.” Mary’s assent is no docile denial of her own will in the face of divine fiat. (Verily, I believe if the only answer Mary can give is “yes” and, thus, she is not granted the freedom to say “no”, then her “yes” wouldn’t be true.) Hers is the “yes” of faith; her conscious acceptance of a new thing, literally, a new creation and with it, a new meaning of and for her life.

The Annunciation. A story of the announcement of the coming of salvation within human history. A story about Mary and her embrace, verily, her embodiment of that divine Word.

Many are the announcements that come to us. May we, like Mary, remain present in the moment, listening, waiting for a clarifying revelation. For even, perhaps especially in the most unlikely, undesirable circumstances, we never can know when an angel may appear calling to us, “Greetings, favored one!”, calling us to bear the life of Jesus in the wombs of our souls, calling us, through our response, to bring the life of Jesus more greatly into the world.

 

Illustration: The Annunciation (1898), Henry Ossawa Tanner (1859-1937). Note: I love Tanner’s depiction of The Annunciation – the muted earth tones of the room, for me, expressive of groundedness in the reality of time and space and of the moment of divine-human encounter, Mary, with her hands-clasped prayerful posture, looking upward with patient expectation, and Gabriel, not portrayed in human form, but rather as the pure light of heavenly illumination.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

a prayer for a breezy, chilly, bluesy Wednesday

Lord, my body’s weary, but I didn’t sleep well last night or the night before last night or the night before the night before last night. Rather, hour after hour, through teary eyes, I stared above, watching ambient light dance across the ceiling, but really, trying to see…trying to find You…

For my weariness and teariness, Lord, are conditions, disorders, now, seemingly chronic, begotten of my feeling about, fretting over situations in this world. This world that Your Father made and gave into human care. This world that Your Father sent You to save. This world, it’s clear to me, for which we humans have not cared very well. This world where it’s sometimes unclear to me where I must look (having longed, yet failed) to see evidences of Your salvation.

This past Sunday, Lord (though I know You know), twenty-six of Your disciples, gathered in Your Name, were shot to death, half of them children, Lord, and twenty more wounded. I remember Your word about those Galileans who, when offering ritual sacrifice to Your Father, were slain on the order of Pontius Pilate.[1] So, yes, Lord, I know that to gather in worship, whether in a Baptist church in Texas, the temple in Jerusalem, or anywhere is no bulwark of safety from violence wrought by human will, whether at the hand of a lone gunman, at the point of a soldier’s spear, or by any other means. Yet, Lord, their murders, any murders, all murders grieve my soul.

So, today, Lord, after sleepless Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday nights, on this breezy, chilly, bluesy Wednesday, I, weary and teary, feeling…being lost, am trying to find You. Yet, Lord, even…especially amid my weariness and teariness, I have faith in You and Your Love. I remember Your parable about having a hundred sheep, losing one, and leaving the ninety-nine to go in search for that wandering one.[2] Lord, I’ve often wondered about this. It doesn’t make sense to me for You to do that. But, then again, my faith doesn’t make sense, for it (as is true of its object; that’d be You, Lord!) is beyond the fullest, even faintest comprehension of my reason. So, Lord, though it makes no sense, in faith in You and Your Love, please, I pray You, come find me.

Amen.

 

Footnotes:

[1] Luke 13.1

[2] Luke 15.3-7

Lord, show us a sign!

a sermon, based on Luke 9.28-36 and Exodus 34.29-35, preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on the Feast of the Transfiguration, August 6, 2017

Jesus asked his disciples, “Who do you say I am?” Peter answered, “The Messiah of God.”[1] His identity confirmed it was important for Jesus to declare what kind of Messiah he was: “The Son of Man must undergo great suffering…and be killed, and on the third day be raised”[2] and, therefore, what kind of disciples they were: “If you want to be my followers, deny yourselves, take up your cross daily, and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it.”[3]

Hard words to hear. Harder to heed. The disciples had left everything to follow Jesus. They had heard his great teaching, beheld his grand miracles, experienced his wondrous love. Now this! The promise of his suffering and death and their self-sacrifice. What on earth would, could compel them to keep going, to continue following? Perhaps nothing on earth, but rather only a heavenly sign of their destination, their destiny.

The Transfiguration (1518-1520), Raffaello Sanzio da Urbino (Raphael), 1483-1520

“Jesus took Peter, John, and James and went up on the mountain to pray.” There, the first sign. Jesus is transfigured; his face and clothing blindingly bright. The Greek indicates that Jesus does not reflect, like the moon, like Moses on Mount Sinai whose face shone, mirroring the glory of God, but rather, like the sun, radiates light. His transfiguration is effulgent; the external emanation of his internal glory of God.

Second sign. Moses and Elijah, chief representatives of God’s Law and the prophets, appear, speaking with Jesus about his departure, his death, resurrection, and ascension that he will accomplish in Jerusalem thus, confirming the truth of everything Jesus has told his disciples about his suffering and death and their self-sacrifice.

Third sign. If the disciples want or need additional proof of Jesus’ identity, the vox Deus, the voice of God resounds from the heavens: “This is my Son, my Chosen, listen to him!”

One of our Epiphany season hymns of praise to Jesus glories in his transfiguration:

Manifest on mountain height, shining in resplendent light,

where disciples filled with awe Thy transfigured glory saw,

When from there Thou leddest them steadfast to Jerusalem,

cross and Easter Day attest God in man made manifest.[4]

There on that mountaintop, for Peter, John, and James, there is no doubt. Jesus is the Messiah, the revelation, the revealer of God!

So, now what? What do we do with this story? We weren’t there. We didn’t see it. And that’s a good thing.

Peter had an idea: “Let’s build houses!” We can’t blame him. We’d want to stay, too. But funny thing about this and any other mountaintop transfiguration when God’s glory unmistakably is revealed. They don’t last. Transfigurations, appearing in numerous ways – a ray of sunlight through dark clouds, a brilliant rainbow after a storm, a kind word when we’re discouraged, a tender touch when tired, forgiveness when we have offended, acceptance when all we see is the worst about ourselves – come and go as splendid serendipity, beyond our power to command or control, encouraging us to keep going, continuing to follow Jesus.

Transfigurations don’t last. But “on the next day, when they had come down from the mountain”, a man begging that his ailing son be made well approached Jesus, who healed the boy.[5]

This is a sign that the mountaintop transfiguration, whilst never enduring forever, can be repeated in our daily living. Wherever, whenever you and I, through word and deed, transform discord into harmony, despair into hope, disappointment into forgiveness, sorrow into joy, there is a transfiguration moment when we become signs, revelations, revealers of the glory of God.

 

Illustration: The Transfiguration (1518-1520), Raffaello Sanzio da Urbino (Raphael), 1483-1520. Note: The Transfiguration is depicted in the upper part of the painting. Jesus floats aloft, with Moses and Elijah, bathed in an aura of light and clouds, as, below, Peter, John, and James, bowed and supine in fatigue, shield their eyes from the radiance. (The two figures kneeling to the left of the mountain top are said to be St. Felicissimus and St. Agapitus, two 3rd century Christian martyrs.) The lower part of the painting portrays Jesus’ disciples seeking, without success, to cure the demon-possessed boy (Luke 9.40), who, in his agony, is naked to his waist, his flesh pale, his body contorted, his arms outstretched, his eyes rolled upward.

Footnotes:

[1] Luke 9.20

[2] Luke 9.22

[3] Luke 9.23-24, paraphrased

[4] From the hymn, Songs of thankfulness and praise, Jesus, Lord, to thee we raise, The Hymnal 1982, #135, verse 4; words by F. Bland Tucker

[5] Luke 9.37-42

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)

swordplay

preaching-epiphany-laurens-1-22-17

a sermon, based on Matthew 10.24-39, preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on the 3rd Sunday after Pentecost, June 25, 2017

“Do not think that I come to bring peace…not…peace, but a sword”

14th century fresco (“I came not to bring peace, but a sword”) in the katholikon (holy sepulcher) in the Sacred Monastery of the Ascension of Christ, Kosovo

Jesus! This is a hard word! So hard that I sometimes wonder what happened to Jesus between his birth and this point in his ministry. Peace was the purpose of his coming. When Jesus was born angels sang: “Glory to God in highest heaven and on earth peace.”[1] When Jesus spoke of blessedness, he identified peacemakers as God’s children.[2] So, what’s up with this sword?

Now, I also remember at the start of his ministry those who gave him the most trouble were the people of Nazareth. An ostensibly triumphal return home swiftly soured as they, with the contempt of familiarity, criticized his teaching and him.[3] That must have been hard! Worse, his family wasn’t supportive. They believed he had lost his mind and tried to restrain him and take him home, presumably for his own good. That must have been hard![4]

So, I wonder. Did Jesus begin with visionary hope and idealistic zeal, seeking to breathe into a world of iniquity and inequity a word of peace about a kingdom of integrity and equality, then suffer manifold Shakespearean slings and arrows of outrageous fortune or find himself caught frequently in that poetic fell clutch of circumstance or simply have too many bad days, all of it knocking him off message?

On more serious reflection, “not peace, but a sword” is not contradictory to Jesus’ message and ministry. Rather, it is a faithful word. Though conflict was not Jesus’ purpose, it was a product of his ministry; for he challenged the powers-that-be, which always bears the bitter fruit of conflict. Thus, he warned his followers to expect it.

From the earliest days of the church, to be a follower of Jesus meant ostracism for some, even from their families; death for others. Because of this hard word, no one who became a Christian later could say: “No one told me about the high price I might have to pay!”

But what does “not peace, but a sword” mean to us in our day and time? Where, when is the sword of conflict for us?

Under the rubric that one biblical passage can illumine another, the Epistle to the Hebrews offers another metaphorical sword reference. God’s word is described as “living and active, sharper than a two-edged sword…dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow…thoughts and intentions.”[5] I focus not on the sword or source of division, but on the character of the division: inward and deep, personal and precise; involving differentiation, slicing-and-dicing between and among realities so closely bound as to be practically inseparable.

I believe the sword of conflict arises in our lives – whether as individuals, families, communities, nations – and first within, whenever we conceive of an idea or claim a hope or behold a vision of who we desire to become or embark on a life’s mission to fulfill it. In other words, whenever we engage any activity involving definition and decision, there is the sword of conflict. For whenever we choose one thing, it means, demands letting something else go. Depending on the issue, that can be a hard thing. And when the choice is made, there arises another external sword of potential conflict with other individuals, families, communities, nations who question, challenge the choice that has been made of an idea or hope or vision or mission.

I believe that Jesus, his gospel, his good news of God’s unconditional love and justice are ultimate matters of life and death, in this world and for the next. I believe that to follow Jesus, to bear his gospel, to share his good news in our thoughts and feelings, intentions, words, and actions is to experience conflict within ourselves and with others, for all of it flies in the face of our inherent human often selfish self-interest.

I believe that in following Jesus, if we never or rarely have known conflict, internal and external, then we’ve been following someone or something else. For to follow Jesus is to hold in our hands the sword of our own conflict.

So, beware and take care.

 

Illustration: 14th century fresco (“I came not to bring peace, but a sword”) in the katholikon (holy sepulcher) in the Sacred Monastery of the Ascension of Christ, Kosovo

Footnotes:

[1] Luke 2.14, my emphasis

[2] Matthew 5.9

[3] See Matthew 13.54-58, Mark 6.1-6, Luke 4.16-30.

[4] Mark 3.21

[5] Hebrews 4.12

recognizing the risen Jesus

a sermon, based on Luke 24.13-35, preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on the 3rd Sunday of Easter, April 30, 20017

It is the evening of that first Easter Day. Cleopas and a companion, dispirited disciples of the crucified, dead Jesus, leave Jerusalem, walking slowly toward the town of Emmaus. Their only consolation, a sorrowful recount of the past few days. Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem. The people, believing him to be the long expected Messiah, crying, “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!” and strewing palm branches of welcome along his path.[1] His righteous indignation in driving the merchants from the temple.[2] The mounting opposition of the religious leaders. Their escalating conspiracy to kill him.[3] His intensified predictions of his death.[4]

Cleopas and his friend repeatedly, emotionally recite these details; as I imagine them, engaging in a broken-hearted mind game of sympathetic self-delusion, conjuring up a different outcome, yet always coming to the same frightfully, tragically speedy end: Jesus’ betrayal and arrest, trial and condemnation, crucifixion and death. Even the astonishing tale told by some women of an empty tomb does nothing to assuage their grief.

The Pilgrims of Emmaus on the Road (Les pèlerins d'Emmaüs en chemin) (1884), James Tissot (1836-1902)

Jesus joins them, but they don’t recognize him. “What’s up?” he asks. They retell their sad story, concluding, “We had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel.”

“We had hoped.” With this classic cry, this melancholy chorus in the timeless song of disconsolation Cleopas and his friend speak for anyone, speak for us in times of disappointment and loss.

Yet as the risen Jesus joined them, so I believe he walks with us on our roads to Emmaus, asking, “What’s up?”

And, today, I ask what’s different for us for whom Easter Day has come and gone again? What’s different for us who have proclaimed, “Alleluia! Christ is risen!” again? If we answer, “Not much, really” (and I suspect for all of us, at least in some aspects of our lives at least some of the time, that’s true), then I invite us to enter this Easter story to look for the risen Jesus. How do we recognize him; a recognition that can make a difference, make us different today?

Cleopas and his friend didn’t recognize Jesus. They were in good company.

On that first Easter morn, Mary Magdalene saw Jesus standing near the empty tomb. She thought he was a gardener. When he called her by name, then she knew who he was.[5] The disciples, even after Jesus first appeared to them, not knowing what else to do, went fishing. They didn’t recognize him standing on the beach, even in the light of day. When he gave them successful advice on where to catch fish, then they knew who he was.[6] In both cases, a familiar word or action evoked the response of recognition.

Perhaps Cleopas and his friend couldn’t recognize Jesus because they were looking for the redeemer of Israel who would rescue them from Roman oppression and make things right.  They weren’t looking for one who, like them, suffers and dies. Yet when Jesus broke the bread, a familiar action, yet also an unmistakable symbol of his body broken on the cross, then they knew who he was.

The Supper at Emmaus, Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1571-1610)

So for us. Weekly, we, in familiar fashion, in holy habit gather in community at this altar to receive Jesus’ Body and Blood. I pray that we can, that we will behold and honor, love and respect the risen Jesus.

Where?

Not where, but rather in whom!

In one another and in the reflections we behold in our mirrors!

How?

In the weakness of our human fragility. There is the risen Jesus!

In the sureness of our subjection to death. There is the risen Jesus!

And most assuredly in our hopefulness of eternal life. There is the risen Jesus!

As we see and recognize in one another and in ourselves the risen Jesus, Easter dawns for us in all of its real-life, resurrected-living present possibility. Easter is not back then, over there, up there, out there, for the risen Jesus is with us, the risen Jesus is in us here and now.

 

Illustrations:

The Pilgrims of Emmaus on the Road (Les pèlerins d’Emmaüs en chemin) (1884), James Tissot (1836-1902)

The Supper at Emmaus, Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1571-1610). Note: Caravaggio captures Cleopas and his companion at the moment “their eyes were opened, and they recognized him” (Luke 24.31). The artist also included himself in the painting as the servant standing to the right of Jesus.

Footnotes:

[1] See Luke 19.29-40

[2] See Luke 19.45-46

[3] See Luke 19.39, 47; 20.1-2, 19-20, 22.1

[4] See Luke 20.9-16 (especially verses 13-15), 20.17-18, 22.21-22

[5] John 20.15-16

[6] John 21.1-7