on the fourth day of Christmas (December 28, 2017, The Holy Innocents), my True Love gave to me the gifts of sympathy and sensitivity

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, Herod, frightened by the fulfillment of the prophecy of the one born king of the Jews(1) and infuriated by the trickery of the magi who would give him no word of the location of the Christ Child, sent his legions to strike down all the children of Bethlehem.(2) Unto this day, innocent children suffer at the despoiling hands of human traffickers and the despotic hearts of rulers who, engaging in war, kill, maim, and make refugees of their own people.

By Your Spirit, e’er sharpen my sympathy, ne’er dull my sensitivity to suffering, yea, by the sword of Your Spirit pierce my heart to its beating, bleeding core, that I, whene’er and where’er and howe’er, alway can and will stand on the side of Your holy innocents.

Amen.

 

Footnotes:
(1) See Matthew 2.1-8
(2) See Matthew 2.13-18

sue God?

a sermon, based on Isaiah 61.1-4, 8-11 and John 1.6-8, 19-28reached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on the 3rd Sunday of Advent, December 17, 2017

Isaiah (1896-1902), James Tissot

Over 2500 years ago, the people Israel, after nearly fifty years of captivity in Babylon, were free. For a second time, they would journey to the Promised Land. The prophet Isaiah marked the auspicious occasion with this word of hope: “The spirit of the Lord God is upon me…anoint(ing) me…to bring good news to the oppressed…the brokenhearted…the captives…(and) all who mourn.”

By contrast, stories of this past week from around the globe screamed the sorrowful news of the daily revivals of ancient animosities, civil unrest, escalating terrorist violence, and, perhaps most ominously, steps forward and backward and forward again toward the threshold of war with North Korea.

Reading Isaiah, then looking at the world, where is the good news to the oppressed, brokenhearted, captive, and mourning? It’s been 2500 years! Plenty of time for God to bring this glorious vision to light and life. Sometimes, when I think things never will get better, I feel like suing God for breach of promise!

But one thing gives me pause. My belief that we humans bear responsibility for the state of the world. Yes, we pray: “Stir up your power, O Lord, and…come among us…we (who) are sorely hindered by our sins…to help and deliver us.” Yet what seems an honest confession of our need can sound like our abdication of our accountability; our all-too-facile admission of our failings so to absolve ourselves of our guilt and grief over the mess we have made of this world. Perhaps we should sue ourselves, declare moral bankruptcy, and throw ourselves on the mercy of the Court of Cosmic Claims (or Crimes, as the circumstances may warrant)!

However, accepting our responsibility immediately raises the question: For what? And if the “what” are the big and abiding problems of our world – hunger, homelessness, economic disparities between rich and poor, the destruction of the environment, racism, sexism – then every one of us, whether one individual, one community, one congregation, one nation, with limited energy and resources, immediately is overwhelmed.

So, what do we do?

John can help us. To the question, “Who are you?” he confessed, declared, “I am not the Messiah!” that is, in common parlance, to say, “I’m not God!”

Saint John the Baptist and the Pharisees (Saint Jean-Baptiste et les pharisiens), 1886-1894, James Tissot (1836-1902)

John then described himself in terms of his life’s mission: “I am a voice crying in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord’”, thereby, reminding all of their responsibility. If the vision of good news to the oppressed, brokenhearted, captive, and mourning had not then and has not yet dawned, perhaps it was they then and we now have not done all we could do to bring it to light and life.

Thus, in response to the question, What do we do?, which is another way of answering the question, Who are we?, following John, we are to be those who always are mindful of our responsibilities for and to the world. It isn’t about whether we always fulfill our responsibilities. We never always fulfill anything. Ultimately, that’s God’s job. Our job, individually and communally, is to be aware and alert to human need and to our resources (not worrying about what we don’t have and acknowledging what we do have!) and to our commitment to respond, and then in the name of the One for whom we Advent-wait, to make straight the way of the Lord, that is to say, to do something.

 

Illustrations:
Isaiah (1896-1902), James Tissot (1836-1902)
Saint John the Baptist and the Pharisees (Saint Jean-Baptiste et les pharisiens), James Tissot

Footnote:
(1) Full text of the Collect for the Third Sunday of Advent: Stir up your power, O Lord, and with great might come among us; and, because we are sorely hindered by our sins, let your bountiful grace and mercy speedily help and deliver us; through Jesus Christ our Lord, to whom, with you and the Holy Spirit, be honor and glory, now and for ever. Amen.

the push and pull of mystery

I awoke this morning in a melancholy mood thinking about the cares that beset any human under the sun, the daily reminders of our limitations, the not (never?) having enough time, energy, or money (or any two or all three), in the face of our desires and needs, to complete, compete, or compensate.

Then I pushed beyond my personal, largely small cares, thinking about greater current woes of the world. Among them:

  • The horrific destruction of hearth and health and hope wrought by the winds and waves of Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria, and the tectonic tumult of earthquakes; turning verdant lands barren, bringing darkness, save for still-shining stars, to what seem endless nights, cancelling the coming day for the final closing of the eyes of the dying, and
  • The dread specter of rising, billowing nuclear clouds, and
  • The social, cultural unrest of an America stirred by the symbols of flags, anthems, and statues, and actions, whether to stand and salute or lock arms and kneel.

Then pulling back from these painful thoughts, as I oft do, I meditated on mystery – not a riddle to be resolved by human reason, but rather the reality of all things beyond human power to control, perhaps even human ability to understand and, thus, to amend.

mystery - Hubble telescope

My meditations provoked, as they always do, questions. Among them:

  • Why do, must people suffer?
  • Why, after centuries of observing and studying the futility of war to resolve disputes, do we, as peoples and nations, continue to lust for combat and long for conquest; the latter, given the superior and spreading nuclear capacity to destroy both enemy and self, being a fool’s goal?
  • Why, despite our best ambitions toward equality, do we continue to separate ourselves along lines, some invisible, yet all seemingly inerasable, of race and class, culture and clan, party and perspective; resulting in our apparent inability and unwillingness to acknowledge the existence of another point of view?
  • Why, long recognizing the incontestable truth that we occupy one planet (notwithstanding the dreams of lunar and Martian colonization) and that we form a global community of inseparable, interlocking interests, do we remain blinded by our prejudices, refusing to see the common humanity that we all irrefutably share?

Underneath these realities, as I behold them, lies unfathomable mystery. Understanding so little, I cannot answer my questions. One thing I do know. I cannot end suffering, war, inequality, prejudice, and a legion of human ills. However, as a person of faith, I can and do pledge to repent, daily, praying the Holy Spirit to make me more conscious of my:

  • time, energy, and money and how to use what I do have to serve, to share with my sisters and brothers of greater need;
  • anger, oft rooted in my sense of an affront to my personal honor and how to channel its virulent energy toward efforts to make peace with others and myself;
  • individuality of self and my commonality with all, so that in acknowledging the former I never disavow the latter;
  • biases and how to peer more deeply into the eyes of “the other” and mine own to behold our common God-given image.

I am not sure how this does, can, or will work. For I perceive it as mystery. By faith, I shall trust God, the greatest Mystery, to bring it to pass.

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.