a restless prayer in perilous times

my-hands-2-27-17O Lord, our God, our times are perilous; our days o’ershadowed by threat of war, our nights, enshrouded by fear of what sorrow, whether on this land or half a world away, may befall before next light. Rocketry’s spears aim skyward, targets in sight, tipped with bombs; the only purpose of launch to rain doom and death. Leaders, comme des enfants terribles, trumpeting infantile bellicose threats of annihilation, disfigure the face of diplomacy and threaten to make nonviolent, even if uneasy resolution less an imagined ideal and more an impossibility.

O Lord, our God, though You ne’er herald our liberty from all trial and tribulation nor that our hearts ne’er will be made anxious by what transpires in time and space at the hands of despotic human wills, You alway assure, come what may, come whene’er, as Your Apostle saith, “that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from (Your) love in Christ Jesus our Lord.”[1] By Your Spirit, O Lord, our God, speaking, breathing through us “with sighs too deep for words,”[2] let us pray for Your presence and power to cleave to the impregnable peace of this Your eternal promise.

Amen.

 

Footnotes:

[1] Romans 8.38-39

[2] Romans 8.26

a-Lenten-prayer-a-day, day 35, Monday in Holy Week, April 10, 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 the restlessness of early morn: O Lord, I awoke in this morning’s wee hours upon my bed of ease with its firm mattress and clean, crisp sheets soothing the mild infirmities of mine aging flesh (did You, O Lord, stir me from my serene and sheltered rest?).

Rising, I felt led (by You, O Lord?) to the window, and I, further bidden (again, by You, O Lord?), looked up into Your sky, alit by Your distant vapor-veiled moon and, farther still, Your winking stars.

And I wondered (did You, O Lord, disturb my mind with this thought, and this morn not for the first time nor, I believe, for the last?) about the eyes of others, my sisters and my brothers of the human family in which You birthed me to share, who also gazed into Your infinite space; though, not with the liberty I enjoy, but without choice, for they had no other place to be, but out-of-doors, in open-air…

Those who are homeless, fending for themselves on dim-lit streets and darkened alleys, lacking sufficient means, some, perhaps, too, no longer sound of mind so to inhabit abodes on avenues with names and numbered addresses called their own…

Those who are refugees, by ruthless powers and principalities heedless of human kindness, forced, bomb-strafed, from their homes to set off across unforgiving terrain toward unfamiliar lands praying for uncertain asylum…

Those who are abused, in fear fleeing olden lovers, who, through terrifying transfigurations, transmogrifications have become habitual transgressors of all sense and safety and any sanctity of self…

Those, in the fresh innocence of their youth, held captive, cruelly coerced to barter their bodies to favor lustful hearts and hands…

Those addicted with stung, needle-marked flesh, lolling brows and listless bodies…

O Lord, I wish, I pray none of this was true; that these situations were but ephemeral images, fragments of dreams, nightmares from which all might awaken, though, yes, shivering and soul-shaken, yet physically sheltered from all harm.

Alas, all, and more, is true, and, as true, my heart is not, cannot be tranquil.[1]

O Lord, I beseech You, tell me what to do? What do I do? What can I do? Amen.

Footnote:

[1] Here, I have in mind Ephesians 5.15-16: Be careful then how you live, not as unwise people but as wise, making the most of the time, because the days are evil. Though the writer’s primary point, as I interpret it, is an admonition to those who follow Christ to reject the ways of their former lives, the crux of the word “the days are evil” strikes a resonant chord in my heart; for so much (and more) of what I behold, as I capture in this prayer, is, for me, the personification of evil; all that denies and defies God.

from light to life

preaching-epiphany-laurens-1-22-17 a sermon, based on Isaiah 9.1-4 and Matthew 4.12-23, preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on the 3rd Sunday after Epiphany, January 22, 2017

the-prophet-isaiah-1896-1902-james-tissot-1836-1902-the-jewish-museum-nyc

“There will be no gloom for those who were in anguish.” Isaiah speaks to a dispirited people dwelling “in darkness” of war’s destruction and desolation. Worse, they believe themselves afflicted – “in the former time, brought into contempt” – by none other than God. There are times, when despair so relentlessly, ruthlessly overshadows a people that it seems to them that the cosmos has turned against them.[1] So, it was for those to whom Isaiah spoke into the depths of their gloom and, lest they miss the message, emphatically proclaiming twice their coming deliverance and in the present perfect tense:

The people who walked in darkness

have seen a great light.

Those who lived in a land of deep darkness,

on them light has shined.

This is prophetic and emphatic speech; not foretelling, predicting the future, but rather forthtelling, proclaiming what God will do. And because it is a work of God, who dwells beyond time and space, once the word is uttered, it is considered accomplished though it has yet to become manifest in human history.

Reading on, Isaiah declares how God will bring light to this people dwelling in darkness: A child has been born for us…Authority rests on his shoulders, whose name is Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. His authority shall grow continually, and there shall be endless peace for…his kingdom. He will establish and uphold it with justice and righteousness, now and forevermore.[2]

This passage we often read at Christmas as we Christians emphasize our belief that Jesus, in his birth, his coming into the world fulfills Isaiah’s prophecy…

This, too, is the view of Matthew, who, writing about the inauguration of Jesus’ ministry in Galilee with a people, according to secular history, living in the shadow of oppression by the Roman Empire, and, according to salvation history, dwelling in the darkness of their estrangement from God, recalls, revives Isaiah’s prophecy: “The people who sat in darkness have seen a great light…for those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned.” From that time, Jesus began to proclaim, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.

What sense do we make of this? We know that history’s pages are replete with sorrowful stories of peoples who have walked in the darkness of war’s destruction and desolation. And, given our demonstrable human propensity to repeat our past, we also know that today peoples do walk in darkness and, doubtless, in the future will walk in darkness.

So, does Isaiah’s prophecy remain to be fulfilled?

Are the glad tidings of Christmas merely wishful thinking?

Is John the baptizer’s question of Jesus, which Matthew also recounts, sadly still operative: “Are you the one to come or shall we look for another?”[3]

I pray not, for another way to look at Isaiah’s prophecy of what God will do is to see it as a sign of hope. Throughout history, people dwelling in the darkness of war and oppression still could conceive of the light of peace and justice; stirring their cold hearts, strengthening their weak hands to labor to bring the vision from the light of their imagination into the life of their reality…

And another way to look our Christmas proclamation of Jesus’ birth is to see it as a sign of what God does. God’s will of peace and justice is revealed not in bold strokes of fearsome cosmic portents, much less by overruling force or overriding violence, but rather in the weakest, helpless flesh of a baby; therefore like our flesh…

And another way to look at Matthew’s testimony that Jesus and his ministry fulfill Isaiah’s prophecy is to see it as a sign of how God does what God does. Through us.

Jesus demonstrated that in his ministry. Jesus called Simon and Andrew, James and John, saying, “Follow me. I will make you fish for people.” Immediately, they followed Jesus.

the-calling-of-saint-peter-and-saint-andrew-vocation-de-saint-pierre-et-saint-andre-james-tissot-1836-1902

Those first disciples, already with their livelihoods, their lives, were in no obvious desire for a new vision, much less a new vocation. Yet when God calls, especially with the claim of discipleship, “Follow me”, almost always it is invasive and disruptive.

Near January’s end, we stand on the threshold of a new year. We dare not stand still, failing to see what God may do with us and through us in this world. What is it that Jesus is calling us to do to bring the vision of peace and justice not to light – for that, in prophetic proclamation, Christmas celebration, and Matthew’s narration, already has happened – but to life?

 

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

Illustrations:

The Prophet Isaiah (1896-1902), James Tissot (1836-1902), The Jewish Museum, NYC

The Calling of Saint Peter And Saint Andrew (Vocation De Saint Pierre Et Saint André), James Tissot (1836-1902)

Footnotes:

[1] I recall the Apostle Paul’s encouraging rhetorical question (Romans 8.31), “If God is for us, who can be against us?” As I read Isaiah 9.1-4, apparently for Zebulun and Napthali, if God is against you, who can be for you?

[2] Isaiah 9.6-7a

[3] Matthew 11.3

my Lord, what a morning!

thinking

a personal reflection on inauguration ceremonies and the Women’s March on Washington…

This morning, I watched the live television broadcast of the inaugural prayer service. In commemoration of Donald John Trump becoming the 45th President of the United States and America’s praised and prized peaceful transfer of power, a few thousand folk gathered under the towering pointed arches, flying buttresses, and ceiling vaulting of the Washington National Cathedral. There, for an hour, they listened to numerous voices praying and singing in varied traditions of faith and hymnody, all celebrating the glories (and summoning all people to recommit to the promotion of the causes) of peace and justice.

This morning, I also watched and through this day continue to watch live news coverage of the Women’s March on Washington (and around the globe!) as hundreds of thousands (millions?) of women and men gather to proclaim that “women’s rights are human rights”, to protect the dignity of women and girls of all ages, anywhere and at any time, and to protest any infringement on the sanctity and security of women’s rights. And, as is true of all marches to (and all marchers who) proclaim, protest, and protect, numerous are the causes, varied are the interests that call people forth. Hence, under the towering, flying, vaulted banner of women’s rights, many peoples and concerns gather in blessed solidarity; among them, Native Americans and colored folk, immigrants of whatever legal status, those who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersexual, and asexual (acronymically rendered as LGBTQIA) – in a word, any and all who historically have been and unto this day are marginalized, thrust to the widening circumference of our society far from the centers of power and influence and, thus, in the language of the Declaration of Independence, disenfranchised, divested of their Creator-endowed “certain unalienable Rights…(of) Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

In the words of that grand Negro spiritual:

My Lord, what a morning,

My Lord, what a morning,

My Lord, what a morning

When the stars begin to fall.

You’ll hear the trumpet sound,

To wake the nations underground,

Looking to my God’s right hand,

When the stars begin to fall.

This song is a commemoration of God’s deliverance; a celebration of the coming of that eschatological end-time when sin and death, hate and war, discrimination and oppression finally are defeated. Still, in this day and time, when all is not right, when sin and death, hate and war, discrimination and oppression are ruefully alive and unrepentantly unwell, I think, feel that “morning” can be supplanted by “mourning.”

On this day, in prayer and song, by watching and marching, I commit anew to live and labor so that, even in this world, before God’s Kingdom come in its glorious fullness, mourning’s veil is lifted, however slightly, by the morning’s dawn.

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.

until “The End”

Washington Diocese of the Episcopal Church

a sermon, based on Matthew 24.36-44 and Romans 13.11-14, preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on the 1st Sunday of Advent, November 27, 2016

Today, the First Sunday of Advent, we, again, begin a new church year. We, again, begin to retell our Christian story of God’s redemptive activity in the coming and birth, life and ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus. Yet strangely Advent begins by calling us to contemplate the end.[1]

the-last-judgment-1467-1471-hans-memling-1430-1494

Jesus speaks of the close of this age, the consummation of human history, the culmination of this life and this world. For some, a sobering, chilling concept as captured by the words of that 13th century hymn, Dies irae:

Day of wrath! O day of mourning!

See fulfilled the prophets’ warning,

heav’n and earth in ashes burning!

O what fear man’s bosom rendeth

when from heav’n the Judge descendeth,

On whose sentence all dependeth!

For others, the very idea of the end is so far removed from daily consciousness, any consciousness that it evokes little regard and provokes little response.

Whatever our view, ominous signs, suggestive of “end times”, are (and always have been!) about us. War, yesyet with combating forces, for generations, no longer only nations, even regions of peoples, but ideologists and religionists governed by no boundaries and possessing greater firepower and perhaps greater vengeance with a capacity and willingness to annihilate. Poverty, yesyet spreading through larger portions of our global community. Environmental change and degradation, yesyet sweeping across grander expanses of our planet. These and more continuing downward arcs of “development” bespeak the terrible callousness, even terminal wickedness in the heart of sinful humankind.

In the face of the ever-present evidences of “the end”, until it comes – and “about that day and hour no one knows,” not even Jesus – Advent summons us to speak and act with expectant exultation. Today’s Collect gives voice to our prayerful petition for ourselves and our hopeful proclamation to the world: “Almighty God, give us grace to cast away the works of darkness, and put on the armor of light, now in the time of this mortal life in which your Son Jesus Christ came…” whose second coming, second advent, “in the last day, when he shall come again,” is the heartbeat of our greatest hope, “(that) we may rise to the life immortal.”[2]

This is the promise we affirm every time we acclaim, “Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again.”[3] Implicit in this promise is the assurance that God, as the only One who knows, is in control, that good will conquer evil, that peace will prevail over conflict, that love will triumph over hatred, that even given humankind’s proclivity for self-destruction, history has a redemptive conclusion, that, in Martin’s words, “the arm of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”[4]

And this promise is our destiny, our end. Yet here and now, we have more than this promise, for Jesus gives us a prescription for the living of our lives in this world: “You must be ready!” One way, among many, to answer this call to readiness is not to gaze at the horizon for Jesus’ coming, but rather to keep busy, constant, steadfast in our Christian living. For me, “Christian living” means striving to do, to be for all people the love and justice, the unconditional generosity and equality, of Jesus. What Christian living is for you, you are called to decide.

Many years ago, during my discernment of a call to ordained ministry, I met several times with a wise priest and mentor, the Reverend Dr. Joseph Nicholson, the sometime rector of my home parish, All Saints’ Episcopal Church, St. Louis. During one of our conversations, in one of those “inquiring minds want to know” moments, I asked, “What would you do if you knew the world would end tomorrow?” He paused for a moment, looking at me intently, then reached for his appointment book, turning to the page of that day. “This afternoon, I have hospital and Communion calls and, in the evening, a weekly Bible study and, after that, another meeting, and then, my wife and I will go out to dinner.” Obtusely, I asked, “OK. But what would you do?” With an understanding smile and kindly look, he replied, “If I knew the world would end tomorrow, I would continue to attend to the labor the Lord has given me to do.”

This remains sage and sound advice for anyone, on any day, and at any time. So, let us, following Paul’s counsel, “Knowing what time it is…live honorably…putting on the Lord Jesus Christ,”[5] that is, doing what the Lord has given us to do until the end when he comes again or until our strength and breath subside in death, whichever comes first.

 

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

Illustration: The Last Judgment (1467-1471), Hans Memling (1430-1494), National Museum, Gdańsk, Poland. Note: In the central panel, the resurrected and ascended Jesus, sitting in judgment of the living and dead, is enthroned above a rainbow, his feet resting on the earth. From his mouth emerge a lily (mercy), reflected in the palm-up blessing of his right hand and a sword (justice) reflected in palm-down condemnation of his left hand. He wears the scarlet robe at the time of his conviction to death (Matthew 27.28). His open hands reveal his stigmata (wounds) of his crucifixion. He is surrounded by his apostles and his mother, the Virgin Mary, and John the Baptist. Below, St. Michael the Archangel, attired in soldier’s armor, holding a scale to weigh human souls, drives the naked unrighteous towards the underworld (the right panel). In the left panel, the also naked righteous are greeted and guided toward the gates of Paradise on a crystal stairway and given clothing by St. Peter and the angels.

Footnotes:

[1] Matthew 26.36-44 is the day’s appointed gospel.

[2] From the Collect for the First Sunday of Advent, The Book of Common Prayer, page 211, my emphases. The full text of the Collect: Almighty God, give us grace to cast away the works of darkness, and put on the armor of light, now in the time of this mortal life in which your Son Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility; that in the last day, when he shall come again in his glorious majesty to judge both the living and the dead, we may rise to the life immortal; through him who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.

[3] The Memorial Acclamation, The Book of Common Prayer, page 363, my emphasis.

[4] From Our God Is Marching On! by Martin Luther King, Jr., preached on the occasion of the march on Selma, Alabama, March 25, 1965

[5] Romans 13.11-14 is the day’s appointed epistle.