at a time of tempest and tremor, a Christian prayer

O God, You who create all things, Your Earth is wroth; cyclonic winds overhead tear across the sea and seismic waves erupt beneath; destruction and death, though ne’er their conscious aim, alway their catastrophic end.

I pray You provide…

through Your illimitable Love, perfect peace for the dead, free forever from all fear;

though Your plenitude of Power, the strength of will to work for all those who labor to liberate all who are held captive, whether under the thrall of the wind and the sweep of the waves of newly-fashioned rivers or in newly-crafted dungeons of fallen bricks and beams, broken metal and mortar;

through Your succoring Spirit, consolation for all who mourn, foremost the loss of life and, too, health and happiness; and

through Your unfathomable font of Wisdom, teach us all deeply to respect the Earth as Your creation, ne’er our possession; that we, as Your faithful stewards, may exercise our dominion, which You graciously have granted unto us, in a sacred, selfless generosity that glorifies You and cares for all who live and for generations yet unborn;

All this, I ask, I beg You, my God, through Jesus Christ. Amen.

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behold our God!

a sermon, based on Genesis 1.1-2.4 and Matthew 28.16-20, preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on Trinity Sunday, June 11, 2017

A story is told that Voltaire,[1] that French Enlightenment philosopher known, among many things, for his complicated relationship with religion, once doffed his hat at the passing of a funeral procession. A friend, surprised, said, “I thought you did not believe in God.” Voltaire replied, “We acknowledge each other, though we are not on speaking terms.”[2]

We, declining to share Voltaire’s sensibilities, claim the annual grace of Trinity Sunday (if not on any other day, then surely this day!) to acknowledge and speak of the threefold nature of God: alway transcendent, beyond all things, immanent, with all things, and spiritually in all things.

The Trinity - Fernando Yáñez de la Almedina

The word “trinity” is not found in the Bible. Still, the Bible, in one sense, is our record of our religious ancestors’ encounters with what 20th century German theologian Rudolph Otto[3] termed the mysterium tremendum et fascinans; that mystery called “God” before which we, in fascinated reverence and fear, tremble. Therein, we behold their attempts to make sense of that mystery, putting into language their experiences and perceptions.

Through the lens of this understanding, let us see what our spiritual forebears have to tell us about God and about us.

Before we do, I share a word about words. Words are symbols. Whether spoken or written, they are meant to conjure up the in the minds of the speaker and hearer, the writer and reader the realities to which they point. Hence, the word “God”, as a symbol, is not God, but only the term we use in our attempt to communicate our understanding of the reality of that mysterium tremendum et fascinans. And, as God is mystery (not a riddle to be resolved, but that which, in its totality, is beyond the reach of our reason), try as we might, we never can comprehend God completely. In a word (pun intended!), we never fully “get”, grasp God. Yet, in our continued quest for understanding, we hope, we believe that what we do get is fully God. For that reason, through prayer, study, and worship, we keep trying, remaining steadfast in the quest to behold our God!

Now, back to the Bible!

The first Genesis creation story is a rhapsodic Hebrew poem testifying that God is almighty! For through the agency of “wind”, in the Hebrew, ruach, Spirit, “sweeping over the face of the waters”, God creatio ex nihilo, creates out of the nothing of “formless void and darkness.” Whenever we humans “create” we always must take things that already exist to fashion something new. God begins with nothing and, through word, “Let there be…”, comes light, sky, earth, and sea, suns and stars, flora and fauna, and humankind. And this unfolding differentiation continues unto this day. Our God always is creating and we, made in God’s image, are called to create, not destroy. Our dominion over the earth is not, is never to be domination, but rather creative caretaking, loving stewardship.

In the Gospel of Matthew, the risen Jesus declares unto his first disciples the Great Commission, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.” As important as this mission of baptizing and teaching has been and is for the spread of Christianity, the most important word Jesus says is “therefore.” Jesus can  (is able to) command his disciples because “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.” Jesus claims the authority, the right to exercise power, of the mysterium tremendum et fascinans, the God of whom Genesis speaks as the almighty Creator.

It is this God revealed in this Jesus who, in the Spirit, is “with (us) always, to the end of the age.”

Behold our God!

 

Illustration: The Trinity, Fernando Yáñez de la Almedina (1475-1536)

Footnotes:

François-Marie Arouet (Voltaire) (1694-1778)

[1] Voltaire, the nom de plume of François-Marie Arouet (1694-1778) famous or infamous, depending on one’s point of view, for his attacks on the established church, and his advocacy of freedom of religion, freedom of speech, and separation of church and state.

[2] Recorded in David Head’s He Sent Leanness: a book of prayers for the natural man (The MacMillan Company, 1959), page 36.

iottoru001p1

[3] Rudolf Otto (1869-1937), German Lutheran theologian and philosopher.

individuality, communality, and money – a financial stewardship sermon

Washington Diocese of the Episcopal Church

a sermon, based on Jeremiah 31.27-34 and Luke 18.1-8, preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on the 22nd Sunday after Pentecost, October 16, 2016

john-donne-1573-1631-portrait-by-unknown-english-artist

John Donne, 17th century Anglican priest and poet, in perhaps his best known work, wrote: “…No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main…any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee…”[1]

Donne’s meditation on life and death following a grave illness also serves as a reflection on those universal aspects of human existence: individuality and communality…

We, with our individual histories and memories, thoughts and feelings, wants and needs, observations and opinions, perceptions and intentions, live in relation with others. We are “hard-wired” to belong. We always are in the act of joining, developing, and maintaining (sometimes tolerating!) community with one or many.

Often I’ve thought that if I was God, I would design life so that anything as necessary as breathing, which I believe relating to others is, would be easy to do. Alas, being in relationship, living in community can be wondrously energizing and woefully enervating; sometimes at the same time! Largely because it involves the constant interplay between our desire to be fully, authentically ourselves and our equally present need to be connected with others, who, no matter the similarities, always because of their individuality call us, challenge us to step outside of ourselves, to see life, the world, ourselves in different ways.

Amid this prevailing existential concern, Jeremiah speaks. Seeking to console a people exiled from their homeland, the prophet tells of a coming time of God’s renewal of their covenantal relationship; one characterized by an inward possession of God’s spirit through which individuals will be responsible for their behavior, no longer having their “teeth set on edge” accountable for the sins of others.

the-unjust-judge-and-the-importunate-widow-john-everett-millais-1829-1896

Our gospel passage illustrates this tension between individuality and communality in a different way. Jesus tells a parable, ostensibly about the necessity of perseverance in prayer. A cantankerous and callous judge grants justice to a widow, who, though the symbol of helplessness, wields the power of persistence. What appears to be a battle of two contestants is really the interplay between individual choice and corporate responsibility; the widow’s relentless demands compelling the judge to do his job for the sake of communal order.

Herewith, and perhaps this will strike you as an odd prologue, I request that we, each and all, consider making a financial pledge to support the life and labor, mission and ministry of Epiphany Church in 2017.

Today, we gather as living inheritors of the previous 170 years of Epiphany’s history; one marked by times of the feast of success in the growth of the congregation, the renovation of our worship space, and the addition of buildings and property and the famine of the struggle to keep the doors open, indeed, during the 19th century, the doors being closed for nearly ten years due to the lack of a priest to share ministry with very few people.

Today, we gather, I pray aware, alert to our continued possibilities. Not because of me. Rather because of you. For you, as individuals, many of you present and active for years, have come and do come to form a community whose spirit, as God’s Spirit written on your hearts, is one of love and respect, welcome and acceptance.

Today, we gather, looking beyond this day into the future. There’s an old saying that the gospel is free of charge, but there’s a cost to proclaim it. Yes, Jesus, a peripatetic preacher, always on the move, declared to a potential follower: “Foxes have holes, the birds of the air have nests, but I have no place to lay my head.”[2] Yet we, Epiphany, are responsible for the care of ourselves and the maintenance of our space and accountable to our larger communities of Laurens and our diocese. Our faithful stewardship of all of it requires money.

Still, my request for our money, transcending solely earthly considerations, is fraught with the tension between our individuality and communality, our singular being and shared belonging, our personal care for ourselves and mutual concern for one another. Nothing quite stirs that tension, asking us to contemplate afresh where the balance is, than the call to spend our money. For this, far more than a practical matter of adding and subtracting dollars and cents, is a spiritual expression of what we value and where we find our hearts.

This, therefore, is a hyper-sensitive matter. Therefore, I – unlike the widow who, according to the Greek[3] demanded justice by threatening to punch the judge in his eye until, by her force and his fear, he submitted – simply ask each of us to make a pledge.

alms-basin

 

Photographs: me preaching at The Washington National Cathedral, Friday, January 27, 2006 (by Walt Calahan); alms basin, Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC; the inscription (read counterclockwise): “It is more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20.35).

Illustration: The Unjust Judge and the Importunate Widow, John Everett Millais (1829-1896)

Footnotes:

[1] From Meditation XVII of Devotions upon Emergent Occasions, John Donne (1572-1631)

[2] Luke 9.58, my paraphrase

[3] The word hypōpiazein (as the judge says: “I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out”) literally means “to hit under the eye”.