Of life in the still-Christian South (a retired cleric’s occasional reflections)…

More on public prayer

On each of the past two weekends, here, in Spartanburg, South Carolina, at Clevedale Historic Inn and Gardens, Pontheolla and I have had the pleasure of hosting and housing a bride, her maid of honor and her bridesmaids.

On both occasions, on Saturday morning, in the serving of breakfast, whilst expeditiously ushering hot plates of freshly and lovingly (that is, Pontheolla-) prepared culinary fare to the table, I was brought to an abrupt and dutiful halt by the voice of prayer – the bride and her entourage, with hands joined and heads bowed, sharing in supplications to God…

On each occasion, though different the groups in nearly every ostensible social category, in their eloquent prayers, I found, I heard a striking similitude – if I had to (and I will!) characterize – of praise to God for being God, of thanksgiving to God, the Giver of all gifts, especially life and love, and of oblation to God in the offering of themselves in service to glorify God and to edify all whose lives they touched.

As both groups were 20-and-30-somethings, I offered to God a silent prayer of gratitude for the gift of renewed hope for the next generation, which these women, to a person, embodied.

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

a-Lenten-prayer-a-day, day 6, Tuesday, March 7, 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 signs: O God of wonder, in Your gracious Governance, You gave unto Your people, sojourning through the wilderness from captivity to liberty, the guidance by day of a pillar of cloud and, by night, a pillar of fire.[1] Many a day, many a time during these days, life, for me, seems…is barren of ease, desolate of comfort, bounding on every side with ravenous beasts of fear and anger, suspicion and reproach. Send, O God, a sign of Your abiding Presence and abundant Power to help me hold in the hands of my prayers the heart of my hope that come whate’er, whene’er, howe’er, I may rest in Your Love. Amen.

Footnote:

[1] See Exodus 13.21-22

is it possible?

Washington Diocese of the Episcopal Church a sermon, based on Luke 2.1-14, preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, December 24 and 25, 2016

“She gave birth to her firstborn son…and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.”

the-adoration-of-the-shepherds-1609-michelangelo-merisi-da-caravaggio-1571-1610

A mother lays her newborn baby in a filthy feeding trough for animals in a dark, dank, rank stable because there was no room in the inn. It doesn’t matter why. The heartless negligence of an innkeeper’s refusal to find lodging for a needy family, the blameless coincidence of the inn already filled by others coming to be registered, or something else. Whatever the reason, this story often is viewed as a sad depiction of privation and exclusion.

I see it as a story of hope. Hope that reflects our desire for the way we want life, the world to be. A desire deep and abiding precisely because it is seldom achieved and whenever realized, never long-lasting.

Hope is why this story has mesmerizing power. Why we read it every year. Why we gather annually to hear it. All to remind ourselves of the way things are meant to be.

So, let us listen again.

This baby, according to his-story, grew up and for many in his time was and, according to history, for countless over two millennia is the embodiment of love, the kindness for which our souls cry, and justice, the fairness for which our hearts hunger. This baby found no room in the inn and was laid in a manger.

An inn is a lodging place for guests; a temporary house for visitors, those who are not at home. A manger is a place for food where those who hunger are fed.

This Jesus, the embodiment of love and justice, is not a guest, not a visitor, therefore he need never lodge in the inn. Rather lying in a manger, he is the feast!

Is it possible then that love and justice are the food of which we are to partake so to become what, who we eat? Is it possible that as love and justice are embodied in our lives that we, others, God will see and know that kindness and fairness are not alien or unknown, but alive and at home in this world?

If we embrace and embody that hope, then it is possible that we this Christmas Day and every day will make all the difference in this world.

 

Photograph: me preaching at The Washington National Cathedral, Friday, January 27, 2006 (by Walt Calahan)

Illustration: The Adoration of the Shepherds (1609), Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1571-1610)

when Jesus advents

Washington Diocese of the Episcopal Church

a sermon, based on Matthew 11.2-11, preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on 3rd Sunday of Advent, December 11, 2016

Whenever I consider this world’s sickeningly repetitive demonstrations of inhumanity, I say, I shout, “This must stop!” And whenever I feel this rise of righteous indignation, I know I share spiritual kinship with John the baptizer who preached to all who dared listen:

Bear fruit worthy of repentance…

for the ax is at the root of the trees.

Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down

and thrown into the fire…

One who is mightier than I is coming…

His winnowing fork is in his hand.

He will clear the threshing floor,

gather the wheat into the granary,

and burn the chaff with unquenchable fire.[1]

st-john-the-baptist-in-the-prison-1565-1570-juan-fernandez-de-navarrete

Jesus, whose advent John proclaimed, arrives, but without the expected judgment. John, arrested for disturbing the peace, huddled in a dark prison, still harbors hope for the fulfillment of his prophecy. Hearkening for word that the ax has swung, the winnowing fork has swept, he hears news of Jesus’ ministry, taking sad note that the world continues on its weary, wicked way as though nothing had happened or would happen.

I share John’s disappointment whenever I imagine how life could be or, arrogantly, ought to be or whenever I join in countless prayers and efforts to bring dreams to light and to life, yet behold the vision evaporate in the heat of the world’s stubborn resistance to change. (Truth be told, sometimes my desolation is about my reluctance to engage and enact my vision to do something different, to be someone different.)

Long ago, at moments like these, I’d cry out to God, giving God another chance to prove that God is God, in charge of the world and in control of me. But God always declined my graciously offered opportunities to fulfill my visions. (My disillusionment with God often led to my deeper, personal discouragement, for I believed my dreams were flawed or, worse, false, thus unworthy of being fulfilled as, indeed, I myself, the dreamer of my dreams, must have been.)

Today, I no longer wishfully theologize about a god of my imagining. Yet, after 2000 years of Christianity, in the face of sadly abundant signs of humanly sinful, sin-fueled suffering, I still share John’s soulful lamentation: Jesus, are you the one or must I look for another? Usually, I raise the question in curiosity. For John, imprisoned, awaiting execution, it was a matter of life and death: Jesus, are you the Messiah or has my ministry, my life been a lie?

Now, there are times when John’s cry is an issue of critical concern. Whenever the hungry again plead for bread and the homeless for a bed and an uncaring world shrugs, “There’s no room in the inn!” Whenever a prayer for peace again is drowned out by the deafening sound of war. Whenever the call of the oppressed for freedom again is reduced to a whisper under the weight of bondage. Whenever visions of love again are vanquished and dreams of justice again denied. Whenever and wherever, we might cry: Jesus, are you the Messiah or have we been fools to follow you?

Nevertheless, I believe that John asked his poignant question, yes, in despair, yet also with hope that Jesus would answer. Jesus did answer. Though not saying, “Tell John who I am, that I am the Messiah!” or “Tell John what I say!” but rather, “Tell John what I do. The disabled, diseased, deaf, dead are made whole.”

Yes, the world goes on its weary, wicked way. Jesus never promised anything else. ‘Til Judgment Day, there will be sin and suffering, hunger and homelessness, war and strife. Yet whenever and wherever we, who follow Jesus, do what he did – feed the hungry, clothe the naked, pray and work for freedom and peace, act in love where there is hatred, welcome and acceptance where there is exclusion – there and then Jesus advents, he comes with hope and healing.

John was God’s messenger proclaiming the coming of the Messiah. Yet he could not perceive that Jesus, as Messiah, rules with love, not force, governs with justice, not judgment, whose power is revealed in service and sacrifice, not violence. Therefore, “the least in the kingdom of heaven”, the least of Jesus’ followers, those who behold, however imperfectly, who Jesus is and those who do, however partially, what Jesus does, even we, are greater than John.

 

Photograph: me preaching at The Washington National Cathedral, Friday, January 27, 2006 (by Walt Calahan)

Illustration: St. John the Baptist in the Prison (1565-1570), Juan Fernández de Navarrete (1538-1579), The State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg, Russia. Note: John is depicted with his wrists bond, his head bowed and eyes downcast in disconsolation. His camel hair garment (Matthew 3.4, Mark 1.6) lay at his side, above which, partially visible is the head of the staff, often associated with John the Baptist in art, bearing the scrolled Latin inscription, Ecce Agnus Dei, “Behold, the Lamb of God” (see John 1.29, 35).

Footnote:

[1] Matthew 3.8, 10, 11b, 12. From the gospel passage appointed for the 2nd Sunday of Advent.

O God, Thy kingdom come?

O’er these past few days – provoked, perhaps in equal parts, by my slower-than-I’d-like recovery from surgery, the seasonally mood-affecting, melancholia-inducing dreary winter skies, and my quintessential and abiding inner psycho-shadow world of pessimism – I’ve been dwelling a lot on the pain and sorrow of this world.

Early this morning, I had a dream or perhaps a semi-conscious alternate-vision that, upon fully awakening, continued to speak to me in the following meditation on Luke 14.12-14.

I turn away from the world;

my eyes tired,

my vision teared

by the avarice,

malice

and all-too consequent sadness

I see.

 

Adrift on the rhythmic pulsing of my yet hopeful heart,

I fantasize,

visualize

a far off place…

 

There!

 

Where

the poor & bloated-bellied hungry,

who e’er are the last and least,

at banquet tables feast;

and this world’s finest and first

make haste

to offer service,

treating them

as royalty,

at their feet, genuflecting, calling them,

“Your majesties!”;

who, though alway too humble by half,

unwilling to suffer the obeisance of eternal equals,

bid their servants join them at table…

 

Where

the broken-bodied gambol through verdurous fields;

their disabilities

yielding to everlasting energies…

 

Where

the blind stare unblinking

admiring

their reflections

sans all imperfection;

their mirrored smiles confirmation

of their long-harbored, secret conviction

that they’d like the way they looked

if e’er they, as now without end, could see.

 

But here

in this world, there –

save for bright-hued visions

of imagination,

the hopeful phantasms of my soul’s desperation –

remains a far off (inaccessible?) destination;

perhaps no terminus at all, for one can’t get there

from here.

 

Then I think, no, I was, I am blessedly wrong,

for there

is ne’er

far off, but alway near,

and truly appears,

however partially,

here

whene’er

I or anyone acts,

however imperfectly,

on faith

in God that Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done

on earth.

going out to see John

Washington Diocese of the Episcopal Church a sermon, based on Matthew 3.1-12, preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on 2nd Sunday of Advent, December 4, 2016

Today, I seek to enter and inhabit, live the scripture. I invite you to join me.

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About three years ago, I first heard about John. All Jerusalem was abuzz about a man who came out of the wilderness, preaching repentance and the kingdom of heaven. Messianic talk. My people know that repentance, turning around, returning to God, is necessary preparation for the Messiah’s coming to restore Israel to glory.

the-voice-in-the-desert-la-voix-dans-le-desert-1886-1894-james-tissot-1836-1902

Curious, I went out to see John. I wasn’t alone. Multitudes from Jerusalem, the Judean countryside, and along the Jordan gathered on the riverbanks.

st-john-the-baptist-preaching-anastasio-fontebuoni-1571-1626-palatine-gallery-florence-italy

He was something to see! Bony, yet brawny. His hair, long, unkempt. People said, “He looks like Elijah!” Though gone a thousand years, our sacred history describes Elijah as “a hairy man with a leather belt around his waist.”[1] Four hundred years ago, the prophet Malachi foretold Elijah’s return to announce the Day of the Lord[2] when God intervenes in human history to set things right. Elijah…John…close enough!

It wasn’t only how John looked, but also what he said. “I cry in the wilderness! Prepare God’s way!” Six hundred years ago, Isaiah, with those same words, declared the end of our ancestors’ captivity in Babylon and return to the Promised Land.[3] But now the Roman Empire holds us captive in the Promised Land! So, when John spoke like Isaiah, I dared to hope for liberation!

Some Pharisees and Sadducees were in the crowd. Odd seeing them together. They don’t agree on much, politically or theologically. John saw them and all heaven broke loose! “Vipers!” he screamed. Snakes haven’t had a good reputation since Adam and Eve! Terrible thing to call someone, especially our most respected people! Nevertheless, he said: “Vipers! You claim to be Abraham’s children, God’s chosen, but it’s not enough to be upright in outward behavior. You must be righteous in your inward being and, in this, you aren’t faithful and true to God. Vipers!”

saint-john-the-baptist-and-the-pharisees-saint-jean-baptiste-et-les-pharisiens-1886-1894-james-tissot-1836-1902

In the past, others came from the wilderness claiming to be prophets. John was different. He didn’t say he was a prophet, he acted like one! And he preached and practiced baptism. No one baptized except the desert-dwelling ascetics, the Essenes, and then only for members of their community. John called everybody to be baptized as a sign of repentance in preparation for the Messiah, whose sandals, he said, he wasn’t worthy to carry. John never promoted himself, always pointed beyond himself. What humility!

I’m a skeptic, but I was impressed. John had charisma. A gift of truth-telling. And I went to him, begging, “Baptize me!” With strong hands, John plunged me into the water, holding me under, finally letting me go. Gasping for air, I didn’t know if my life had turned around, but I did see it pass before me! Yet I felt different. Expectant. Ready for a brighter, better day.

Then nothing happened. Well, something happened, but nothing good. King Herod arrested, imprisoned, and beheaded John. Just before that a man from Nazareth, Jesus, came to John to be baptized. Incredible stories were told about his preaching, teaching, healing, raising someone from the dead. People called him Messiah and followed him, expecting God’s kingdom to come. Then the Romans crucified him.

Promises, hopes, like all before and since, come to naught. I wondered then, I wonder now, why did I bother to go out to see John?

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John burst onto the first century Palestinian scene with incandescent temperament and intemperate tongue. His words inflaming minds, igniting hearts. His urgency suffering gladly no hypocrisy or subtlety.

Why would anyone go out to see John? Perhaps because his message of repentance resonated in human hearts. People knew that they were soul-sick, in need of healing. They knew that they, even at their finest, falling short of their best, were in need of help. They knew that they, in their wildest imagining envisioning who they were destined to become, needed hope. In the ferocious sincerity of John’s language, they heard a word of truth and new life. Not happy-ever-after-fantasy, for given what we know of the world and ourselves, life was not, is not like that.

John spoke truth. About new life through repentance, our turning around to face anew God and ourselves and our reality. All of it. Our highest, unspeakable joys and our deepest, unspoken fears – love and hate, assurance and fear, trust and betrayal, communion and separation, intimacy and abandonment, life and death. New life that lives in the power of the paradoxical peace that nothing, even the worst of everything will not, cannot destroy us, for we are a part of something greater.

John proclaimed and died for the truth of this reality, preparing the way for Jesus, the Messiah, who not only proclaimed, but personified the truth of God, for which he was crucified. A crucifixion that led to a resurrection. A resurrection that is the foundation for a community of life-giving love. A community for two millennia through which people have sought to live the life of God and in which we gather today going out to see and to hear John to be reminded afresh of how real and new and true the life of God is.

 

Photograph: me preaching at The Washington National Cathedral, Friday, January 27, 2006 (by Walt Calahan)

Illustrations:

The Voice in the Desert (La voix dans le desert) (1886-1894), James Tissot (1836-1902)

St. John the Baptist Preaching, Anastasio Fontebuoni (1571-1626), Palatine Gallery, Florence, Italy

Saint John the Baptist and the Pharisees (Saint Jean-Baptiste et les pharisiens), James Tissot

Footnotes:

[1] 2 Kings 1.8

[2] Malachi 4.5

[3] Isaiah 40.3