Wednesday Morning Prayer

Reposted from the Episcopal Cafe. The recommended Canticle for use after the first testament reading at Morning Prayer on a Wednesday is Surge, illuminare: Rise and shine.

On a day like any other
buses ran, some on time
buskers sang, some in tune
people minded the gap and
the invisible person by the stair
papers vended, church bells rang
children scattered staccato
footsteps echoed hasty, hungry drums
tattooing the air and someone
in the heart of the beating world
heard the prayer
Arise, shine
for the glory of God has dawned
upon a day like no other …

On a day like any other
Arise. Shine.

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Love all the way down

A sermon for the fourth Sunday after the Epiphany in Year C, the annual meeting of Epiphany parish, Euclid, and the Solemn Sung Eucharist at Trinity Cathedral, Cleveland. The main text for this sermon is Paul’s ode to love in 1 Corinthians 13

There’s nothing like a couple of days of -30 degree windchill to make even an ordinary 30 degree winter day feel like a gift.* And whether we face the storm in safety or unsheltered makes all the difference in the world. Context is powerful.

When we read scripture, context matters. Today’s New Testament readings follow on directly from last Sunday: we read them in the context of our ongoing and growing life as a faith community. Even if we don’t have the luxury of coming together every week, or of remembering what happened last Sunday, we read them today in the context of God’s words to the prophets, God’s promise from the beginning: I have always known you. I am always with you. Together, we will move mountains.

Paul’s love poem is all about this context: the context of Christian life and church community. We more often hear it read in the context of a wedding – I heard it read aloud at my own wedding – and we naturally assume from the context that it is offering good advice on how to live together through the trials and trivia of intimacy: to be patient, and not irritable; to be truthful, and avoid Schadenfreude; all good advice for newly-weds, and for the rest of us who live among the human family. But Paul was not writing his letter to a pair of lovebirds, but to a church in serious need of guidance, conflict resolution, and a lot of love. That was his context.

Last Sunday, some of you may recall, Paul was writing about the need for cooperation, collaboration, cohesion within the body of Christ. He was hinting toward tenderness for those less able to claim their own status, exhorting an equality of esteem and opportunity among members of a patchwork community sewn together through the nails of Christ’s crucifixion, and the whole cloth of his resurrection, and the new garments of baptism.

Paul ended that passage listing the spiritual gifts so lauded by the Corinthian Christians among themselves – gifts of prophecy, teaching, leadership, speaking in tongues, philanthropy, interpretation. And we ended on the cliffhanger verse – because yes, the Bible can be just as suspenseful as your daytime stories, read right – we left on the cliffhanger note: But strive for the greater gifts. And I will show you a more excellent way.

This is the context for Paul’s great poem on love: the more excellent way. He is preaching to a church in Corinth which has become over-excited about its own spiritual gifts and arguments, which is in danger of losing the larger life for which God has called it into being: to serve the gospel of Christ, God’s message from the manger, from the Cross and the empty tomb; from the five thousand fed on the hillside and the dead raised up before their loved ones’ disbelieving eyes; from the outcasts embraced and the prophecies fulfilled: God’s message from Jesus.

Look, says Paul, I don’t much care how many of you can speak in tongues, if you don’t love the people to whom you are speaking. I don’t care if you reverse tithe and beat Bill Gates for charitable tax deductions, if you resent the people who have less than you; unless you love them more than the money you give away. I don’t care, says Paul, how clever or funny or philosophical you can be, wise guys, unless you have love; unless you serve up love on a platter. Unless you sow love, you reap an empty reward.

It’s about love, says Paul, not as we know it, but the love of God, enduring, truth-telling, patient, resilient, steadfast, faithful, revealed in Christ, life-giving; love that has known us from the beginning; love that can move mountains. And if it’s not about love, Presiding Bishop Curry might add, it’s not about God.

You see, context is important. Even our polar vortex days do not occur without context. Set within the scheme of scientific data, they are a portent of the ways in which our world is changing. Even our spiritual ancestors would have told us that. Too often these days, context is used as a whitewash, to excuse the inexcusable, and to pardon the unpardonable. We use it stirred into our conversations to reinterpret everything from politics to coffee beans, from catholic schoolboys to governors, from culture to Christianity. It is used to confuse as much as to clarify situations and statements.

But the context of our life together is love. And contrary to the old cartoon, love does mean saying we are sorry, when we have acted unlovingly, as individuals, as a church, as a culture. That’s what it means for love to rejoice in the truth, rather than wrongdoing. It means repenting, changing our ways to align with the love of God, the love poured out by Jesus, to free the prisoners and heal the suffering.

If we love our neighbour, with the love of Christ, we will find it hard to denigrate their race, culture, gender, marriage, family, or economic situation. If we can love our neighbour enough to get to know them, not in part but as we are fully known, then we will lose the excuse of unintentional offence. If we love our neighbour with the love of Christ, we will protect our own hearts from contempt, derision, self-satisfaction. If the love of Christ is our context – love that embraced the outcast, fed the five thousand, raised hell and raised the dead – if love is our gift, we need fear no evil.

It is difficult to measure the success of a strategy of love. Jesus discovered that a single sermon in his hometown could get him lifted on shoulders as a hero, and lifted right off the edge of a cliff, if he wasn’t careful (and he was rarely careful). Love could get him raised on a cross, and raised to God’s right hand on high. Is love measured in the blood of martyrs, or the lives saved from the lions? Love is difficult to budget, and hard to count. But without love, we are a whitewashed tomb, and an echoing gong.

So Paul was writing to the Corinthians, but even if our context perhaps doesn’t look quite like theirs; if we are not a brand new, burgeoning, baby Christian community, outgrowing itself month by month; if we don’t look like a bunch of Greek philosophers, full of leisure and the zeal of new converts, champing at the bit to spend our spare energy on the gospel of Christ; even so, Paul’s letter still has a word for us in our own context.

Look, he says, if you don’t have a whole lot to give away, but you have love, then you are rich indeed. Share your bounty. If you don’t speak in tongues, but you have love, then speak that word, that language, which is universally understood. If you don’t have faith that you can move mountains; if you live in a context that seeks to keep you down, but you have the love of God in your soul, well then let’s build a base camp, invite a team of faithful and hopeful companions, and climb the mountain together.

Our primary context, our broadest and most specific context is the love of God, present from the birth of creation, from before the birth of the prophets, and with us today. If we can locate and ground and surround ourselves with the intentional and patient and persistent and enduring and powerful context of God’s love, then we need have no fear of being taken out of context. If we can create and sustain a cultural context whose greatest gift, talent, and treasure is love, then with God’ help, we will move mountains.

* updated to add: I live in Fahrenheit country now

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Precipitated by clever argument between gravity, ice,

and the presumption of free will,

bruised as creation, blue and green,

concussed like goatskin stretched and pounding –

the serpent, sliding snidely by, hisses something

about pride, a fig leaf, and the inevitability of the fall.

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Winter prayer

Snow has fallen, slurring my footsteps,

skewing my pathway to prayer.

Only become as a child, you say:

trade caution for the headlong hurtle;

build snowmen, not as idols but monument to

the meeting of flesh and raw air.

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Water, wine, and justice like an ever-flowing stream

A sermon for the second Sunday after the Epiphany, and Martin Luther King, Jr weekend, 2019. The gospel reading describes Jesus turning water into wine at the wedding in Cana (John 2:1-11)

Have you ever done the maths on the jars of water that Jesus turned into wine at the wedding in Cana? It’s a massive amount. William Barclay’s commentary notes that the capacity of those jars represents the breadth and depth and reach of God’s mercy:

“No need on earth can exhaust the grace of Christ.”[i]

One of the places I visited while I was on sabbatical, apart from the Holy Lands, was the National Museum of African American History and Culture. The Museum is a remarkable place. I don’t know anything about architecture, but even I could read the parable that this building writes on the National Mall.[ii]img_3728

Aside from the immediate and visible experience of African influence and African American labour on the structure and culture of this country, the journey through the museum’s interior made me think of Dante’s Divine Comedy. Above ground, reaching to the sky, with views from Washington’s monument to the White House, the culture exhibits on the upper levels reminded me of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame – full of colour and celebration, hard work and inspiration, controversy, community, and creativity. But to tour the history floors, you have to head underground, six stories deep. The elevator opens on the past, and the only way out, the only way back up to ground level and the present day is through the history of this country’s relationship with its own people, through the lens of the African American experience.

I can’t begin to describe to you briefly the impact of walking that history of inhumanity and human dignity, the weight of those ceilings, each one a century, and the heaviness of your footsteps as you climb closer to our own day of reckoning: Which side are you on, boys, which side are you on?

Praying before the casket in which Emmett Till was buried – the casket exhumed when his case was reopened, and preserved as a memorial when he was returned to God’s ground – I can’t begin to describe it to you (and unfortunately you’ll have to wait until the government shutdown ends to attempt to experience it for yourselves if you haven’t already been).

When you emerge finally from the halls of history, there is a reflection gallery, a place of peace and quiet, light and water, in which to sit and recover your breath, and replenish the defences which you wear in order to go about daily life pretending that all is well.

(Although the experience of Native Americans this weekend on the same National Mall argues otherwise).
[Updated to note that some differing accounts of the incident described at the link have now also been reported.]

On the walls, a quotation from the Revd Dr Martin Luther King, Jr, echoes the falling water:img_3732

We are determined to work and fight … until justice runs down like water, and righteousness like a mighty stream.

Of course, Dr King was himself quoting the promise of the prophets of the radical and refreshing and overwhelming quality of God’s justice, that judgement which brings with it mercy, and the steadfast loving kindness of God:

But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. (Amos 5:24 )

In today’s gospel, that outpouring of love and justice is illustrated by what Jesus does with the water.

I wondered all last week why it was that in John’s gospel this water into wine wedding sign is the first public manifestation of Jesus’ miraculous power. All four gospels begin to describe his ministry broadly speaking with his baptism, with his proclamation of the coming gospel, with his calling disciples to follow him, and with his preaching from the prophets the good news of God’s kingdom, the justice that is to roll down and the waters of life which will buoy up God’s people.

But in the other three gospels, the first individual miracle, the first breakthrough sign is one of healing; of making a leper clean and whole, or of casting out an unclean spirit. It occurred to me that this sign at the wedding of Cana most probably, for John, also represents healing, wholeness, and restoration.

John’s story begins, “On the third day,” and it ends, “he revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him.” For John, Jesus is the healing miracle. He is the restoration, the refreshment, the fulfillment of the prophets.

And now I notice that at the start of the story, it is not only the wine that has run dry. The stone jars that hold fresh water themselves need filling up before anything else can happen. Even the water has run dry. It is a theme repeated through the gospel of John, when Jesus encounters a woman beside a well in Samaria, and asks her for a drink, because he is thirsty, and when he cries out from the cross with his dying breath, “I thirst!” Jesus is the living water that runs with justice and righteousness and slakes the thirst for life; and he is the first to point out how thirsty the world is for such relief.

Emmet Till’s body was found in the river, a river now polluted by injustice. From the empty jars of Cana to Flint, Michigan, not all water runs clean. Sometimes, the thirst for justice threatens almost to drown us.

In John’s story, the jars designed to hold water have been used up. In practical terms, the guests used them to wash up for dinner. They used the water to wash their feet before the feast, just as later Jesus would tie a towel around his waist and wash the feet of his disciples before he fed them with bread and wine.

So where does that leave us? What do we do?40583791_10215174583815337_2072543018509926400_n

“Do whatever he tells you,” Jesus’ mother says in the story.

I read another story this week, in a book that was published a matter of months before Dr King’s assassination in 1968.[iii] It carries a young girl’s account of attempting to go to school in a legally integrated but lethally segregated southern city in 1957. Elizabeth Eckford, whom history knows as one of the “Little Rock Nine,” described the nightmarish morning in which she tried to go to school, and was damn near lynched for her trouble. She said:

“I turned back to the guards but their faces told me I wouldn’t get help from them. Then I looked down the block and saw a bench at the bus stop. I thought, ‘If I can only get there I will be safe.’ I don’t know why the bench seemed a safe place to me, but I started walking toward it. I tried to close my mind to what they were shouting, and kept saying to myself, ‘If I can only make it to the bench I will be safe.’

“When I finally got there, I don’t think I could have gone another step.”

A bench at a bus stop became a beacon of safety to that young girl, and I couldn’t help but picture in my mind’s eye our own, new bus stop bench, and wonder how we are living into our call as a haven of safety, a place of redemption and rescue, and a harbour against the storms of racism and other oppressions that continue to swirl around and within us.

We have a ministry of place, to be a safe space, a bench at a bus stop ready to receive the weary and the fearful and to offer a defence against the violence of this world. We have a call to provide refreshment to those seeking resurrection, those who are thirsty for justice, and hungry for grace.

“Do whatever he tells you,” Jesus’ mother told the servants. We servants of Christ are instructed to fill the jars with water, to fill our own lives with justice, to fill our world with the gospel of righteousness that frees the prisoners from oppression, lifts up the faces of the poor, sustains the orphan and the lonely, and provides a place of safety for every child of God. We servants of Christ are instructed to fill the jars with water, for the world is thirsty still for the justice that runs down like water, and righteousness like a mighty stream. We are called to do whatever he tells us, and let Jesus do the rest, turning water into wine, humility into glory, justice into victory, and the kingdom of God into a present and living reality. He is the living water that runs with righteousness, and he brings the wine of justice, the wine that tastes so good, when the kingdom of God is realized and all of God’s children are gathered in: no exceptions.

[i] William Barclay, The Gospel According to John, Volume I, The Daily Study Bible, 2nd edition (Westminster Press, 1956) 89

[ii] You can read more about the work of lead designer David Adjaye and lead architect Philip Freelon here.

[iii] Black Protest: History, Documents, and Analyses 1619 to the present, edited by Joanne Grant (Fawcett Publications, 1968), 276

Featured image: glass recovered from the 16th Baptist Street Church, Birmingham, Alabama, after four young girls were killed at Sunday School by a racist bombing attack in 1963

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How cats answer prayers

First published at the Episcopal Cafe

The other day, I opened the front door of the church and a cat I had never met before walked in. I bid her welcome. She meowed.

For the next hour, she was my shadow. I had to tread carefully to avoid tripping over her, she stayed so close to me. Having small company lightened my footsteps.

I had, I confess, been having a dreadful afternoon, by which I don’t mean that anything horrifying had happened, but that I was buckling under that dull burden of dread which accompanies winter in the northern hemisphere: the lack of brightness, the dismal disbelief that sows doubt about the eventual return of spring.

We finished up the work I had to do in my office, then set off for the sacristy to set up for evening service. We ended up for a little while on the chapel floor, beneath the benevolent eye of Jesus, purring, and I reflected that when our saviour was humanity incarnate, there must have been moments when he was unable to move, or shout, or sneeze for fear of waking a cat that had taken up residence in his lap. These things happen.

When the first person arrived for service, the cat greeted him with a polite leg rub, then showed herself out. I saw her once more as I drove out of the parking lot later, sitting under the porch light, watching me leave.

Now, I know that I have a weakness for whimsy, but there was something about that cat. She had a flash on her forehead that was the exact colour of the sand in the Jordan desert. She arrived as though in answer to prayer, and stayed until she left. She watched over my going out, and for all I know my coming back in.

If it is possible for the Holy Spirit to inhabit a dove’s form, or to inspire the formation of a flock of geese, why not send a small cat as a messenger of hope, comfort, warmth on a cold midwinter’s afternoon, her desert colours proof against the dying of the light?

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Unquiet centre

The silence of prayer, not

the absence of sound but

footprints on the ceiling and

the waltz of a three-legged cat,

a hungering woodpecker picking

the lock on a worm-weary tree,

the hum of heat and refrigeration,

competing elements of fire, water, air,

breath and beat.

The Word populates

time with meaning:

Let there be

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