Praying with icons

I light a candle. I find it hard
to meet your painted eyes.
I say, “I’m sorry, sorry,
sorry, sorry.” Looking down
from your cross, unfocused,
you say, “I forgive you.”
But, “You have to say that;
you’re Jesus,” I complain.
Your face is wooden.

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Standing on the side of love

A word before worship this morning.

Welcome to the Church of the Epiphany. I am glad you are here.

We come together for one reason, one purpose: to worship God. To give thanks for our creation, redemption, preservation, and all the blessings of this life.

When that life is challenged, slighted, or blighted by sin, disease, and death, there is room in our worship, as there is room in God’s heart, for our struggles, our lament, our righteous anger.

So we come together to pray.

In a week that has witnessed talk of nuclear war, Nazi marches, questions even about our own police’s use of force, we come together to pray.

We pray for peace amid rumours of war. We pray for love amid demonstrations of White supremacist, racist hate. We pray, “Thy kingdom come.” We set our lives within the context of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

We pray in the name of Jesus, a brown man, the descendant of slaves; a man whose skin marked him out as a suspect, second-class citizen in the political system in which he lived; a man who was unjustly executed.

He was a man whose kind the Nazis sought to exterminate, within the lifetime of some of us here. He was the Incarnation of God, the very image of God, in whom some failed to recognize even his full humanity.

The Incarnation of Jesus as the Christ is a reminder to us that God does not choose the power of privilege nor the face of fury to further God’s kingdom. His resurrection reminds us that God will not allow hatred to bury the power of love.

Jesus has said that, “Whoever is not for me is against me” (Matthew 12:30).

As we come together today, let us take care that our hearts are for Jesus, who gave his life for us.

I invite you into a moment of silent prayer.

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But deliver us from evil

Last month, I went on a camping trip to the coast with my daughter. It was glorious: the ocean does something to my soul which even the greatest of Great Lakes can’t match. There is a tug in that salt undertow which at once tempts a person to combine with the most profound elements of creation, and to fight against her assimilation, to try earnestly to stand against the surf and stay alive. I love the sea.

On our last night there, a storm rolled in. Rolled, as in went through the motions of a steamroller.

Never mind the rain, which, inspired by the sea, fell like a crashing wave, sweeping out the ground from under its newborn rivers, running back, like the undertow, to the shore.

Never mind the thunder and lightning, which got seriously overexcited and insisted on dancing a reel around and around and around us for hours, dropping its flash-bombs and rumbling with laughter, pinning us inside its circle for as long as it pleased. So rude; so boorish.

No, what really had me worried was the wind. It was the wind that picked up tables and chairs, shelters no longer worthy of the name, and threw them angrily against building walls. It was the wind that bellied up against our tent, flattening us to the floor, aggressive and unrelenting.

I began to pray. It seemed unlikely that you would walk out across the waterlogged campsite speaking, “Peace. Be still.” I prayed for smaller miracles: that our tent would survive. That we would survive. That the tree would not fall. That you would not let me let my daughter down.

That was the crux of it. Isn’t it always?

My fear is less of the elements, because what can I do against them, and who am I to them? My fear is of my own decisions, whether they are wise, and good, and capable; whether they will save my daughters and son, or lead them into danger. That is where your guidance would come in handy.

And now, on a clear day, far from the coast and its healing saltwater salve, I hear men speak storms of fire and fury, and once again I pray, from the small, dark space in which my heart has pitched its tent.  I pray that you will inspire most of us to wise choices, to lead our feet into the way of peace. I pray that you will provoke in many of us the courage that comes from faith, and the obstinacy that accompanies love, to resist evil. I pray that you will not let me let our children down.

 

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Heaven on earth

Looking ahead to Sunday’s Transfiguration and the disciples’ awe-filled witness to the glory of God revealed in Christ, I have been thinking about religious experiences; extraordinary revelations of the divine. I occasionally wonder if I was “done out of” a heavenly vision when I flatlined once in an operating theatre and noticed nothing out of the ordinary; but maybe such ingratitude misses a vision of the kingdom of heaven that is already to hand …

If my soul was untethered, then it was too far gone in sleep to know it. I only learned of my dance with death in the recovery room, where I came back cold, so much colder than I had ever felt in my life. My only intimations of a world beyond my own cold bones came from a heated blanket, and another, wrapped around by a nurse who swaddled me as though I were her child. They came from the awkward, hurried prayers of a friend, holding hands at the bedside as though it were not strange for us to meet this way.

In other words, heaven was brought near to me not by any out of body experience, but by the earthy and earthly mediation of loving bodies, moving in and out of my field of vision, in a white and stainless steel temple devoted to the merciful care of all who might pass by.

Almost as though the love of God could be clothed in flesh, stained and sagging, unilluminated, and glorious.

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Preachers, politicians, and parables

In St Paul’s finest moment, he asserts that “I am convinced 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 the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” So let’s not let parables, preachers, or politicians divide us, either. (Romans 8:38-39)

The readings are for the eighth Sunday after Pentecost (Year A Proper 12)

Jesus asked his disciples, “Have you understood all this?” And they answered, “Yes. Got it.”

The consensus at Tuesday’s Bible Study was that they might have been trying just to stop Jesus telling them more parables because their heads were spinning, but perhaps that’s unfair. Each parable is a pearl in its own right, but when they are strung together like this, they make something else, a pearl necklace perhaps; something more personal than commercial.

Jesus asked his disciples, “Have you understood all this?” And they said, “Yes;” and if they meant it, then honestly, they were wiser fishermen than I.

But when we look at the parables as a set, we find patterns woven between them. Nothing is clear in itself, and yet we hear, between the lines and between the riddles, intimations of the kingdom of heaven, and how it might relate to us, and to Jesus.

Taken together, the parables are like a net, knit together and cast over the crowd, pulling in the hopeful, the weary, the obtuse, and the understanding. All of that can be sorted out later.

I admit, I find the treasure parables problematic. A man finds treasure in a field, and instead of running to his neighbours, shouting for them to come and see what good fortune is lying on their doorstep, he reburies it, deceives the landowner of its value, and keeps it for himself.

This is not an appropriate way to approach the kingdom of God. Don’t be that guy.

The merchant is looking for pearls to buy and sell; he, too, thinks that the kingdom of heaven is a commodity that he can possess. Don’t be that guy, either. Perhaps they are bad fish; something about them smells a little.

We see around us too many people who claim to have found the kingdom of heaven, to know the mind of God, and who yet want to keep it for themselves. They judge themselves to be worthy, and treat others with contempt. They celebrate the chance to exclude swathes of God’s children: transgender children, poor children, immigrant children, gay children, black children, unarmed children, female children. We find them in the comments sections of the online news, and in the media, and in the churches, and in the government. Whenever they turn their judgement upon someone we love, we notice them, and we are afflicted.

But are we so indiscriminate in deciding with whom we share our hidden treasure? Or are we dealing in grace like merchants buying and selling pearls? Are we cheating on our disclosure statements regarding the treasure that we hold, and hide? Whom do we exclude, in the secret hidden thoughts of our hearts?

Speaking of cheating, the saga of Jacob continues this morning with that trickster finding one of his own in Uncle Laban. The first family of God is full of surprises, and secrets, and side-deals; and yet God remains faithful throughout all of our sins and stumblings.

As Paul writes centuries later, nothing can separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus. Not the church, not the media, not the government, not even we ourselves.

When Jesus began his ministry in the regions of Galilee, the gospels agree, he told the people two things: to repent, that is to be turned and transformed by their response to the gospel; because the kingdom of heaven, the kingdom of God is at hand.

Repent: turn away from sin and stumbling, and towards God, who is already close at hand, to catch us up and sort us out. This is the good news of God in Christ: that the kingdom of heaven is already at hand, whether we notice it or not; God is already here, with us, waiting for us. The kingdom of heaven is something like a sinner who stumbles across something wonderful, or a seeker who finds perfection, in the midst of the fish market.

Actually, if we’re going back to parables, I’d prefer the aroma of fresh baked bread from the woman with the yeast. You could spread it with mustard to make a sandwich.

The mustard seed is an interesting illustration. It isn’t really, I am told, the smallest of all seeds and it doesn’t really, I am further informed, become that great of a grown-up plant; but it does of course undergo a transformation. If it is to grow, it must first be buried in the dirt, and broken up, broken open, before it will embark upon its new life above ground. When it does, that formerly self-contained seed is now part of a greater system, giving food and shelter to the birds, cleaning the air that we breathe. From something dead and buried, it has transformed into something life-giving.

It is possible that Jesus is speaking of his own death and resurrection?

The kingdom of heaven is like a woman who hides starter yeast in a whole heap of flour, so that it blows up the whole bunch. Did you know that in first-century Judaism, there existed an idea that bore a distinct resemblance to our own expression, “She’s got a bun in the oven”?[1]

Is it possible that in telling this parable, Jesus is referring to his own advent; that the kingdom of heaven is like one born of a woman? That the kingdom of heaven is like a bun, born of an oven, who is called the Bread of Life?

Fun fact: if you put the yeasty bread parable together with the net full of fish parable, you end up with loaves and fishes, feeding the thousands on the hillside.

If we are the fish, caught up in the net of the kingdom, all sorts and conditions; if we fish are gathered together with the bread that is Jesus, then we are enough for thousands. We are enough to satisfy multitudes. We can perform miracles, extending the feast, the treasure, the grace across those who are hungry for a word from God, a crumb of comfort, a solid meal, something that doesn’t taste sour.

Or at least we can proclaim the miracle: God loves you, no exceptions. And we can assure every child of God that nothing, “neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers,”

[nor preachers, politicians, Popes, or people]

“nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate [you] from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

Amen.

 

[1] Amy-Jill Levine, Short Stories by Jesus: the enigmatic parables of a controversial rabbi (HarperOne, 2014), 124

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Anniversaries

Invisible weight; a calendar date slung
lazily, loosely around the neck, its heft
hitting the breastbone with each jarring
missed step, bruising the heart, bleeding
memories beneath the skin.

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Guns everywhere?

This is from my first op-ed published in the Plain Dealer: online today at cleveland.com; in print later this week (so I’m told).

What does the notion that a trip to the local sports bar requires a concealed weapon do to our way of being in community? What do guns in schools teach our children about how to live together? What does the introduction of weapons to our churches say about our faith?

There is something profoundly alienating about the idea that the only way we can be safe is to be ready at any moment to kill. It is a bias of mine that we do not make ourselves or one another safer by carrying death more closely in our pockets, or binding its tools to our bodies.

I first drafted this essay in the aftermath of a rash of mass shootings in the US. Ohio, Orlando, Pennsylvania, San Francisco – this last happened on the same day as the egregious attempted assassinations of congressmen practicing baseball in Virginia. The toll of mass gun violence between May and June was staggering. I knew that it didn’t begin to describe the scale of injury and death that is inflicted day by day, week by week, through homicide, suicide, accident, and neglect across our country. I found it curious how little attention those of us who are a little more insulated by our experience pay to the public health hazard that is gun violence.

I updated the piece, and sent it to the press, as the Ohio State legislature began to process a Bill that would further expand the prevalence of guns in public places, and which seeks further to relax our grip on understanding that these weapons are causing us irreparable harm. That same week, on Independence Day, and eight-year-old was grazed by a bullet slicing past him at a beachfront park.

If our independence is to promote our freedoms, our life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, then we need to rein in the violence. We need to get control of our weaponry. That is my opinion.

Read the essay here.

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