thank You, Lord

A personal reflection and prayerful meditation based on the Beatitudes (Matthew 5.1-12) on Thanksgiving Day, November 23, 2017.

The Sermon of the Beatitudes (La sermon des béatitudes) (1886), James Tissot (1836-1902)

This day, O God, I give You all praise and thanks that, through (yea, only through) the prevailing power of Your Spirit, I, day by day, more and more, know myself to be:

Poor in spirit, accepting (finally!) all that I am – my strengths and weaknesses, my wealth and want – and, in my acceptance, believing, knowing that I am not (never!) in control, and believing, knowing that You are God and I am not (ever!).

Mournful. Not melancholy, bemoaning all things (though, You know, O God, that I am a practiced, even professional complainer!), but rather caring for others; even more, knowing how much and often that I, in my brokenness, grieve others; still more, knowing how much and often I need forgiveness.

Meek; not spineless, but courageous with righteous anger, O God, about all hatred and injustice that grieves Your Spirit.

Hungry and thirsty for righteousness; insatiably desiring right relationship with You, O God, and all others You have made, including myself.

Merciful; settling for no safe-distance-sympathy and suffering no passing-moment-pity, but rather being responsible, response-able to others, striving to see through their eyes, seeking to be as they are, even, especially those most unlike me.

Pure of heart; single in purpose; wanting, willing one thing: to see You, to know You, beholding Your ever-unfolding revelation of Your Self and the meaning of life – that of the world and mine.

Peacemaking; though taking no pleasure in the dis-ease of conflict, quailing not from engaging it; striving to understand all points of view, even, especially those with which I disagree; mindful of our common dignity as Your creations and our common destiny to dwell in Your peace that passeth our understanding or to destroy and die in our divisions…

(and knowing, believing, O God, Jesus’ teaching to be no multiple-choice, but rather an all-inclusive list; accepting, embracing the last and, for me, hardest of all)

Persecuted; willing to sacrifice my comfort and convenience, yea, my well-being for the sake of standing in commitment to You and Your kingdom.

For all this and more than I can know and name, on this Thanksgiving Day and day by day, in the words of a song, I: Thank You, Lord, I just want to thank You, Lord. Amen.

 

Illustration: The Sermon of the Beatitudes (La sermon des béatitudes) (1886), James Tissot (1836-1902)

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a lesson learned

Epiphany 1-22-17a sermon, based on Matthew 15.10-28, preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on the 11th Sunday after Pentecost, August 20, 2017

I am a man. Though, as an African American intimately, painfully familiar with the societal deprivations experienced by people of color, both in human chronicles and in my own history, I, however sensitive and sympathetic I may and can be, cannot know firsthand the strivings and sufferings of our sisters of our human family who, from time immemorial unto this day, have had their dreams deferred and denied.

For women, in every arena or field of endeavor – athletics and the sciences, politics and the military, commerce and the church, medicine and the law, the entertainment and service industries – patriarchal hegemonies remain; pay equity still an ideal and glass ceilings still firmly in place, some hardly clear, but rather cloudy, opaque, leaving the women below unable to behold as possibilities the riches of opportunities long relished as realities by the men above.

This comes to my mind and heart, my soul and spirit as I reflect on the encounter between Jesus and the Canaanite woman.

Christ and the Canaanite Woman, Ludovico Carracci (1555-1619)

Jesus enters the district of Tyre and Sidon. Her territory. And she, with the urgency of gravest necessity, greets him with a shout, “Lord, Son of David!”

Incredible!

This non-Jewish woman recognizes who Jesus is, demonstrating a greater awareness of his messianic identity than his disciples have shown so far…

Even more, she, for the sake of her love for her daughter, captive in the thrall of demonic-possession, dares beg the mercy of this Jewish messiah; her very request expressing her belief that he can do something and hoping he will

Still more, she, as a non-Jew and a woman, in the audacity of her appeal has stepped over, kicked over the even then ancient barriers of race and gender, status and authority that bar her from receiving any help.

Jesus, a Jewish man and rabbi, observing those time-honored boundaries, says nothing, need say nothing. His disciples, men, no matter their societal stations – most as fishermen, one a hated tax collector, another a religious zealot – surely standing higher than she, beg Jesus to “send her away.” Jesus answers, and it’s not clear he is speaking to her, sharing only his ultra-exclusionary understanding that his mission and ministry are intended only for Israel.

She persists, adding to her words of respect, “Lord” and “Son of David” a universally understood deed of deference, kneeling at Jesus’ feet; again asking, begging, “Lord, help me.”

Jesus responds with a demeaning word of cultural difference and distance, likening the woman and her daughter to dogs hungering underfoot at the table.

She persists, voicing her belief, her confidence that even a crumb of the mercy of Jesus can conquer the demon laying claim to her daughter’s soul.

Jesus, praising her faith, finally grants her desire.

This encounter between Jesus and the Canaanite woman is a bold witness to the persistent power of faith, especially in response to the rejections of silence and dismissal of the status quo.

I also see that even Jesus, who taught that what is internal, not external, bears the fruit of wickedness, had to be shown how not to fall prey to his perspectives, his prejudices about the outward features of culture and class, race and gender. Bless you, Jesus, for having the humility to listen and learn.

May all who follow Jesus, in every arena and field of endeavor, athletics and the sciences, politics and the military, commerce and the church, medicine and the law, the entertainment and service industries, no longer look on “the other” as “other” and, thus, no longer offer crumbs of mercy, if even that, but rather invite all to have a chosen seat at the table.

 

Illustration: Christ and the Canaanite Woman, Ludovico Carracci (1555-1619)

a-Lenten-prayer-a-day, day 36, Tuesday in Holy Week, April 11, 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 a day’s reflection on the restlessness of yesterday’s early morn: O Lord, I feel afresh my frailty. I, whether joined with others or alone, do not have the wealth of strength or sense or substance to serve all of my sisters and brothers, whether near or far, in great and grave need. Yet I remember the words of Your Son, my Savior Jesus, “You always have the poor with you and you can show kindness to them whenever you wish.”[1]

O Lord, through Your Spirit, alway pour Your Love into my heart[2] that I have kindness for those who suffer and that I may be kind, doing whatever I can with whatever resources I have at whatever occasion arises for whomever is in need.

By Your same Spirit, O Lord, lead me and guide me to believe and to trust in You that You, with whatever I offer, great or small, all of which You first have given to me, will bring good fruit.[3] Amen.

Footnotes:

[1] Mark 14.7. To view and interpret this saying in its context (see Mark 14.1-9), this was Jesus’ response to those who were angry at what they considered the waste of costly ointment with which a woman had anointed him. They had professed a desire to have sold it and the money given to the poor. Jesus prophetically perceived that he had been anointed for his burial following his soon coming crucifixion and death. In his recognition and acceptance of his destiny (see the full verse [my emphasis]: “You always have the poor with you and you can show kindness to them whenever you wish; but you will not always have me”), he graciously received the gift of the woman’s kindness.

Here, as I employ and pray this Jesus-saying, I recall that over generations some have interpreted this verse to suggest that as the poor always are present nothing need be done to help them insofar as poverty is an insuperable condition of life in this world. I, rather, believe that the ever-presence of sisters and brothers who are poor and the systems and institutions of avarice that create and maintain economic imbalances constitute a constant call to render sacrificial service to, for, and with those in need. To put this another way and succinctly, the “whenever” to show kindness is always!

[2] See Romans 5.1-5 (my emphases): Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.

Concerning “sufferings”, the Apostle Paul most likely refers, specifically, to the trials he endured in his life’s vocation of spreading the gospel and, generally, to the tribulations common to any human life. Regarding the latter, I include the sympathy one can have for another undergoing suffering.

[3] Here, I think of the spiritual and material principle that undergirds the Apostle Paul’s teaching about the primacy (or rather its lack, for only God is supreme!) of those who seek to do God’s will and work: I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth (1 Corinthians 3.6-7).

I also am put in mind of John the evangelist’s version of the feeding of the 5000 (6.1-14), particularly verses 5-11 (my emphasis), which bears a detail the other evangelists, Matthew, Mark, and Luke do not: When (Jesus) looked up and saw a large crowd coming towards him, Jesus said to Philip, “Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?” He said this to test him, for he himself knew what he was going to do. Philip answered him, “Six months’ wages would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little.” One of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, said to him, “There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish. But what are they among so many people?” Jesus said, “Make the people sit down.” Now there was a great deal of grass in the place; so they sat down, about five thousand in all. Then Jesus took the loaves, and when he had given thanks, he distributed them to those who were seated; so also the fish, as much as they wanted.

In the face of manifold need, I often feel (indeed, I am!) like that boy; my provisions and resources of self and substance being woefully meager. Yet, by my faith in God, I trust that God, Who has given me whatever I have to offer, will use whatever I have to offer.

a-Lenten-prayer-a-day, day 28, Saturday, April 1, 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 beholding the Image of God’s new creation: O Lord, all that is, yea, too, humankind is fashioned in Your Image, even more, redeemed by Your Son, still more, through Your Spirit, made a new creation.[1]

Yet, for the longest time, at least for me and at least much of the time, I found it hard to see Your Countenance in the faces of others, verily, too, in the face I beheld in my mirror…

confess - regret

For, despite Your creating, saving, sanctifying work, I, oft trusting more (most? only?) in my observation and opinion, continued to regard others and myself from a human point of view of judgment as alway failing, falling short of Your will.[2]

Today, I, in my being entire – my mind and heart, soul and spirit – am convicted of my sin of denying Your goodness and grace.

In my repentance, I give You thanks for being granted new eyes to see others and myself as You see us.

In this, I also need praise You for Your merciful, infinite patience with me. Amen.

Footnotes:

[1] See 2 Corinthians 5.17-18a: (The Apostle Paul writes) So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ.

[2] See 2 Corinthians 5.14-16a (my emphasis): For the love of Christ urges us on, because we are convinced that one has died for all; therefore all have died. And he died for all, so that those who live might live no longer for themselves, but for him who died and was raised for them. From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view. Note: The Greek, kata sarka, here, translated “human point of view”, literally means “according to flesh”, which, in light of the Apostle Paul’s theology, as I interpret it, connotes more than human perception, but rather the inherent opposition of sinful flesh to God’s work in and through the Spirit. Thus, to view others, indeed, myself, as I write in my prayer “from a human point of view of judgment” is to perceive all things and everyone “as alway failing, falling short of (God’s) will.” So, again, I thank God for being given new eyes to see life and creation, others and myself no longer (not only) from “a human point of view” of judgment, but rather, as God sees, with mercy and grace!

what are you thinking?

ash-wednesday a sermon, based on Isaiah 58.1-12, preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on Ash Wednesday, March 1, 2017

“Is this the fast that I choose?”[1] The prophet Isaiah speaks to the people, declaring God’s word, really, God’s question.

For nearly seventy years, the Israelites were held captive in Babylon. Now, with the fall of the Babylonian Empire to the Persian army, the people, their liberation finally come, their hated exile over, return home. But their suffering in poverty and powerlessness continues. Their land, in ruins. Basic necessities, lacking. Neighboring nations, poised to strike.

israelites-return-to-their-homeland-1670-domenico-gargiulo-1609-1675The people, literally hungering and thirsting for God’s favor, fast – abstaining from food and drink, donning coarse sackcloth, smearing their faces with dust and ash; ancient, ritual signs of sorrow meant to get God’s attention.

But no relief comes. Because, Isaiah says, their fast, an external display of humility, is a mask for hypocritical, unchanged, selfish hearts. Even in poverty, some, less poor than others, seek to maintain whatever privilege they possess, which the poorer among them would wrest from their hands.

“Is this,” God, through the mouth of Isaiah, asks, truly, demands, “the fast that I choose?” Do you really believe that outward, ritual display without deeds of mercy, without common acts of common assistance to address common need satisfies My hunger for righteousness? Do you really believe that superficial religiosity, artificial piety reflects My kingdom, My community of love and justice? What are you thinking?

God’s people have sinned, “missing the mark”,[2] failing to fulfill God’s calling. However, this prophetic chastisement isn’t a negative job evaluation or a poor performance review. For the issue is not about doing, but being. Not about duty, but identity. The people have misunderstood not what they are to do, but who they are. They don’t have a mission to do God’s love and justice. Rather the God of love and justice has a people in whom that mission takes flesh, thus lives and labors.

So, Isaiah declares that an acceptable fast is deeds of mercy, which, when done, do not, will not, cannot gain the reward of God’s blessing, but rather are the signs that the people already are blessed by God, verily, are God’s blessing for others. Deeds of mercy do not, will not, cannot win salvation, but rather reflect that salvation already has come, verily, that the spirit of salvation, healing, wholeness “lives and moves and has its being”[3] among the people.

Thus, it does no violence to the text, indeed, it is to unearth its truth to change the word “then” to “when.”

Is not this the fast I choose?

To loose the bonds of injustice,

To undo the thongs of the yoke,

To let the oppressed go free,

To break every yoke?

To share bread with the hungry

To bring the homeless poor into the house

To cover the naked

To hide not from our sisters and brothers in need.

Again, not “then,” not if we do these things, this will be the result, but rather “when” we do these things it is a sign that already:

Our light breaks forth like the dawn,

Our healing arises speedily

God answers even before we call…

This is a biblical way of saying that we already have embraced, embodied the love and justice of God’s very nature.

So, this Lent, let us not do deeds of self-sacrifice, even self-denial. Rather let us be acts of mercy, particularly for those who are “other” than we.

Thus when God saith, “Is not this the fast that I choose?” verily, “Are not you the fast that I choose?” we will be able to answer, “Yes!”

 

Illustration: Israelites return to their homeland (1670), Domenico Gargiulo (1609-1675)

Footnotes:

[1] Isaiah 58.5a (emphasis mine). The Hebrew scripture appointed for the day is Isaiah 58.1-12.

[2] The word sin is derived from the Greek, ‘amartia, literally meaning “to miss the mark.” The image may be conceived as that of an archer whose arrows (symbolic of one’s life’s intentions, indeed, aims) land all places except the center of the target (of life, Who is God).

[3] Words from A Collect for Guidance, The Book of Common Prayer, page 100 (based on Acts 17.28)

a-Lenten-prayer-a-day, day 1, Ash Wednesday, March 1, 2017

my-hands-2-27-17 Note: 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 the incomprehensibility of the Divine:[1] O God, I do not understand You. The grace of Your Love, granting unto me a salvation that I do not, that I cannot merit, verily, that I think, that I believe impossible for me, and the mercy of Your Love withholding from me the righteous judgment that I, in my sin, deserve, is beyond my comprehension. You are beyond my comprehension. As Your prophet Isaiah declares, Your ways are higher than my ways and Your thoughts than my thoughts,[2] so my greatest imagining, my grandest thought of You, like a sightless, errant arrow falls far short, ne’er a threat to draw near to Your goodness and glory. Nevertheless, though You remain beyond the sight and reach of my reason, You, in Your love, ever stand within the light and grasp of my faith; a faith, which by Your Spirit you grant me, to trust in You. In that faith, in that trust, I give You thanks, always and in all ways. Amen.

Footnotes:

[1] Over many years, I have pondered the words of The Creed of Saint Athanasius, which reads in part: “…the Catholic Faith is this: That we worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity, neither confounding the Persons, nor dividing the Substance…The Father incomprehensible, the Son incomprehensible, and the Holy Ghost incomprehensible…there are not three incomprehensibles…but…one incomprehensible…” Each time, though drawing no nearer to understanding, all I can say is “Amen.”

[2] See Isaiah 55.8-9

summum bonum

preaching-1-22-17 a sermon, based on Micah 6.1-8, Matthew 5.1-12, and 1 Corinthians 1.18-31, preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on the 4th Sunday after Epiphany, January 29, 2017

“What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God?”

micah-exhorting-the-israelites-to-repentance-gustave-dore-1832-1883

This word of the prophet Micah is the Hebrew Bible’s magna carta, great charter of life, supreme expression of the summum bonum, “the highest good” of human living.

Amazingly, though scriptural, it’s not especially religious; as religion may be conceived as the creedal declaration or ceremonial possession embodied by (or, worse, entombed in) some sacred institution.

Not for Micah. A “good” life, a “good” religion always involves action, therefore, is always less about what we confess with our lips or symbolize in our ceremonies and always more, in accord with our confession and our rituals, what we profess with our lives.

We “do justice.” Knowing our human longing for fairness, we act equitably toward others. We “love kindness.” Knowing the nature, the reality of human suffering, we act compassionately with others amidst their travails. We “walk humbly with God.” Knowing our personal strengths and weaknesses, our bright lights and dark shadows, we act humbly, with little sense of privilege, even less entitlement, striving to live at one with our Creator, the creation, and all creatures.

At the heart of Micah’s prophecy, this idea of moral instruction as fruit, not seed; in other words, as the articulation of what already is, not the expression of an ambition for what ought be is a lens through which we can view the Beatitudes – Jesus’ description of blessedness, the Christian magna carta, charter of life, summum bonum, verily, the Christian way to fulfill, to do Micah’s word…

the-sermon-of-the-beatitudes-la-sermon-des-beatitudes-1886-james-tissot-1836-1902

To be poor in spirit is to recognize the nature of life in this world – so fundamental that it is the first state of blessedness from which all else flows – that there is little to nothing of circumstance, chance, even our choices (always in response to circumstance and chance) that we command or control. Thus, we, knowing our constant need for God, walking humbly with God, act; mourning with others who grieve, for always with someone, sometimes ourselves there is grief, hungering and thirsting for righteousness, for always somewhere there is evil and within us, the temptation to do evil, making peace, for always, both without and within us, there is conflict, even being persecuted on the side of the suffering against the will of the strong, for always someplace there is oppression.

But back to Micah. For grander epiphanies await us!

This great teaching, “do justice, love kindness, walk humbly with God”, is set within the context of conflict. A trial. God calls the people to answer for their failings of disobedience, which are so severe that God summons “the mountains…and (the) foundations of the earth”, creation itself, to listen.

Yet God, in making this divine case against the people, is not wrathful, wanting to punish them. Verily, in a stunning reversal, God is not the plaintiff, but the defendant raising a question about divine conduct, asking the people to voice their complaints, “What have I done to you? How have I wearied you?”

This is a God who, in calling the people to account, wants, wills to be held accountable. This is a God as judge who wants, who wills to be judged.

This is a disruption, a destruction of all legal tradition, all juridical convention! This is beyond any traditional, conventional institutionalized, religious understanding of God’s nature, God’s being and behaving. This, therefore, is outside of any customary conception of the divine-human relationship.

What is “this”? God rises to the summum bonum, telling us, showing us the highest good! God does justice, loves kindness, walks humbly with us! The chiefest epiphany, revelation of which, as Paul proclaims, is “Christ crucified.” Our God ascends to the summum bonum by being raised on a self-sacrificial cross of crucifixion and death for us.

It is this God, our astounding, worldly-wisdom-defying-and-destroying God to whom we in the awe of gratitude would make offerings, the greater, the better – from a “burnt-offering of one young calf” to “thousands of rams” and “tens of thousands of rivers of oil” to “my firstborn.” And our God answers, “No, I don’t want your gifts. I want you.”

So, then let us do justice, love kindness, walk humbly, which is Micah’s way of echoing Jesus, indeed, Micah’s way of our fulfilling, doing, being poor in spirit, mournful, meek, hungering and thirsting for God’s righteousness, merciful, pure in heart, peacemaking.

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This was the original end of this sermon…until a sleepless late last night into this morning as I pondered President Trump’s executive order banning travel to American shores of folk from seven Muslim-majority nations – an act that heartened his supporters and horrified his detractors and sparked protests at airports around the nation of many proclaiming welcome to immigrants and refugees and provoked judicial temporary restraining orders to stay the implementation of the ban; this last, ensuring legal jostling and jousting for some time to come.

I recognize and accept the risk of saying anything that, for some of us, may cross the line from spiritual to political matters. However, I believe that politics, from the Greek polis, city, and, by extension, the human community, is concerned with how we, in the words of the prayer, “live and move and have our being” – think and feel, intend and act – together. Moreover, as a Christian pastor and preacher, as your pastor and preacher, I also recognize and accept my responsibility to share counsel with you from God’s Word of how we “live and move and have our being” in this world.

Now, I never will tell you what to think. I entrust that to your individual, inner spiritual and ethical bearings as guided by the illumination of God’s Spirit. I will share with you a view, a vision of how to think.

And based on this day’s scriptural passages, I submit to you that the tension has heightened excruciatingly between border security and national safety and our anthemic American identity as “the land of the free and the home of the brave”; a land and home, from inception, save for our Native American sisters and brothers, populated by immigrants; some arriving of their free will and others brought captive.

And though here in Laurens, South Carolina, for most of us, the subject of immigration and the concerns of refugees may not rise to the apex of our lists of daily pressing issues, perhaps even of our mildest interest, the values, the virtues of justice as unconditional equality and honoring the God-given dignity of every human being as our Baptismal Covenant bears witness always call us to act wherever we are with whatever we have and however we can for the least, the last, and the left out.

How you, I, and we do that is for your, my, and our discernment. But, in the spirit of Micah, do it, we must.

 

Photograph: me preaching at Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, by Pontheolla Mack Abernathy

Illustrations:

Micah exhorting the Israelites to repentance, Gustave Doré (1832-1883)

The Sermon of the Beatitudes (La sermon des béatitudes) (1886), James Tissot (1836-1902)