Friday

Breaking open

pistachios by the Friday fire,

pitching shells toward the pit.

I wonder whom the meat of casements

that arrive empty fed. Others

refuse to open, peeling back my thumb

nails; I surrender,

hurl them to the fire.

A moth drifts singeingly close,

riding the updraft like a bird of prey,

pretending grandeur.

All around the fire pit, pistachio

shells litter the scorched earth, fallen

short or saved by a small miracle:

the ricochet of bleached

bones off burnt wood.

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Crumbs

A sermon for Morning Prayer online from the Church of the Epiphany, Euclid, Ohio. The readings for Year A Proper 15 include the story of the Canaanite (or Syro-Phoenician) woman imploring Jesus for help for her child.


It strains credibility that Jesus, having fed the five thousand and healed the multitudes, who had travelled deep into the trans Jordan to heal the man of the Gadarenes and cast his demons into swine; that this Jesus, faced with the prospect of a mother’s grief would say, “I’ve got nothing for you.” (Matthew 15: 21-28)

Jesus knew better than anyone how much he had to give, and for how much of the world, and how many of God’s people, God’s children. It does not make sense for him to withhold healing from this woman’s child when he would not even decline to provide wine to a wedding.

Yet here we are, sitting like dogs beneath the table, catching at crumbs, trying to piece together enough sense to make a meal of.

 

Paul wrestled with the expansion of Christ’s mission to the Gentiles, even as he claimed that mission as his own. He knew that God’s grace is not like pie – that sharing it, like the loaves and the fishes, multiplies rather than reducing grace. And still he voiced those fears, “If God loves these people as much as mine, does that mean that God loves mine less?” (Romans 11:1-2a, 29-32)

No, the prophet answers: there is room for everyone on God’s mountain. (Isaiah 56:1,6-8) “In my Father’s house,” Jesus says elsewhere, “there are many dwelling places.” (John 14:2)

 

If, as some suggest, Jesus was playing a part for the sake of his disciples, to teach them a lesson about their own limitations and limited vision, to expand their hearts for compassion, then I would hope that the woman was in on the joke, that he whispered or winked to her, this poor mother brought to her knees by her daughter’s suffering. If so, she played her part well, especially given the circumstances.

If Jesus was trying to shock his disciples into beginning their anti-racism training, then he chose a risky tactic, playing up the stereotypes and the derogatory statements in order to knock them down. His disciples were often a little hard of understanding; it would be easy, instead, for us to perpetuate the error of calling women dogs, of dividing people into the deserving and undeserving of food, medicine, housing, grace, humanity; into those in network and those out of network; into the pure and the other.

If Jesus was putting on a scene in order to convict his disciples of their own exclusionary, xenophobic, racist, sexist, selfish attitudes towards the woman – “Make her go away!” they say. “Make her stop talking” – then we have yet fully to learn our lesson.

 

I hope you know by now that I will not, from this pulpit or computer screen, push one political party over another. Only God is good and only Christ is my saviour; all else are fellow workers on the road to justice and judgement. That said, there is a tendency still to make less room for women, to suggest that foreigners are greedy for crumbs, to pretend that there is not enough grace in America to go around.

As a woman and as an immigrant, I notice; as a white woman, and one of a privileged accent and background, it is easy enough for me to slide past most complaints, to become part of the problem.

Even for those who have been here generations, one way or another, or whose generations preceded the generation of a majority-white nation, the ways in which we talk about one another, the labels we use: “minority,” suggests a certain discount.

We have yet fully to learn the lesson that there is no minority section of God’s heart; that Creation swells and grace abounds and that the very details of difference that God seeded among us were designed to show us the beauty of a broad imagination, not to divide us but to invite us to embrace the infinite, the indescribable, the all-encompassing, the God.

 

Jesus has the capacity, the will, the grace of God to heal the woman’s daughter, to lift the woman from her knees. No one is left to crawl around for crumbs under his table; if they were, you might be sure that he would be right there with them. In what might be a bit of a backhanded rebuke to his disciples, “Woman, great is your faith!” he says, who last week admonished Peter, “Oh ye of little faith.”

“Woman, great is your faith!” he says, “Let it be done for you as you wish.”

May our faith be big enough to make room for difference. May our wish be not only for grace for ourselves and our own, but for the daughters and sons of Canaanite women, knowing that the love of God is not diminished nor spread thin, but multiplies like loaves and fishes when we join forces with the Creator, who made all things good. May our differences be the instruments not of our division but of healing, seeing the expansive grace of God refracted through them, more fully to reflect the glory of God.

Amen.


 

It’s a commonplace that preachers are always preaching to ourselves. Starting tomorrow, I am working through a curriculum originally developed by the Bar Association of San Francisco, and now taken up by the American Bar Association, called the 21-DAY RACIAL EQUITY HABIT BUILDING CHALLENGE.

As the name suggests, the curriculum is a three-week course designed to “advance deeper understandings of the intersections of race, power, privilege, supremacy and oppression. … The goal of the Challenge is to assist each of us to become more aware, compassionate, constructive, engaged people in the quest for racial equity.”

“The Challenge invites participants to complete a syllabus of 21 short assignments (typically taking 15-30 minutes), over 21 consecutive days, that include readings, videos or podcasts. It has been intentionally crafted to focus on the Black American experience. The assignments seek to expose participants to perspectives on elements of Black history, identity and culture, and to the Black community’s experience of racism in America. Even this focus on Black Americans cannot possibly highlight all of the diversity of experiences and opinions within the Black community itself, much less substitute for learnings about any other community of color. This syllabus is but an introduction to what we hope will be a rewarding journey that extends far beyond the limits of this project.”

Find more information at: https://www.americanbar.org/groups/labor_law/membership/equal_opportunity/

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Elements of creation, currency of compassion

A sermon for our online Morning Prayer service of August 9, 2020. The Gospel account is of Jesus and Peter walking on the water, with varying degrees of success.


Peter grew up as a fisherman. Water was in his blood. He knew its essence, its beauty, its danger. He had no illusions that his long relationship with the Sea would save him should it one day turn against him.

When the disciples saw Jesus walking across the storm-churned water towards them, they were rightly terrified. They knew that this was not how the world works. Even after all they had seen – the feeding of the thousands, the healing miracles – the idea that Jesus would challenge even the power of the elements, the powers that be, that control the way that we live and move and have our being in the world – this was truly wonderful and fearful; frightening in its potential to open up a whole new way of being.

For a moment, Peter could see the possibilities. Wind and water were, after all, the first elements of creation (Genesis 1:1-2). In a rush of hasty optimism, Peter appealed to Jesus: “If you say so,” he told Jesus, “I can walk with you.”

Jesus said, “Come.”

Once Jesus had given the command, Peter had to choose whether to obey his fear or his faith; being human, he chose both.

Peter started out alright, but his wet feet, his cold ears, his shivering body screamed at him that this is not how it goes; that we are not born to understand the wind and waves and make of them a new creation. His body, with its conventional and unassailable wisdom, told Peter to forget new horizons. It told him to sink.

But Jesus, of course, caught him, and hauled him into the boat, and laughed gently at his humanity, his human error of believing in the impossibility of the situation rather than in its potential.

 

Peter had seen what was possible. In the first place, when he saw Jesus walking on the water, as terrified as he was, he said, “If you command me to, I can do that, too.”

Last week I put out the question on Twitter: if you could imitate any one of the things we have seen Jesus doing – from walking on water to turning water into wine – what would you choose to ask him, “Say the word, and I can do that, too”? No one replied.

Perhaps it was a foolish question. Or perhaps we are too afraid to ask, in case Jesus calls us into the storm, or in case he tells us we are not ready. Or perhaps we would really like to walk on water, because it sounds awesome and fun, but we feel as though we really should be asking to heal the sick and feed the hungry, to steal back life from death.

Of course, they are interrelated. If we ask to follow Jesus, if we ask him to command us, to give us some of his Spirit, so that we can walk on water, then we are already beginning to reshape the world around us. If we ask Jesus to help us to follow him, to walk with him, to love our Creator and to love our neighbour and even our enemies as he does, then we are by default challenging the way that the world works. And if we challenge the ways of the world, we confront the powers that be, and we defy the forces that decry compassion as an inefficient currency for our economy of life. If we choose the way of love, and Jesus as our commander and guide, we can ride the currents and rise above the depressing mess that the world has been in since the Fall.

 

Peter set out confidently, sure of the possibilities before him, knowing that Jesus would change the world, wanting to be at his side, at his feet, at the hem of his garment as he did so. But as Peter’s imagination retreated into his own skin, he became afraid, and he let go of the vision that had stretched like a bridge between him and Jesus and creation, and he began to sink.

Two thousand years later it sometimes feels as though we are still weathering the same storm. We are still afraid of the call to walk on the water, to defy the strong winds that keep us from reaching the promised land, the kingdom of God. But after all that we have seen him do, from the water to the wine to the bread to the boat to the Cross to the Resurrection, what is really holding us back from asking him, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water”?

Do we doubt him? Do we doubt ourselves? Or do we secretly like life the way that it is, as long as it profits us. Is the way of the cross, the currency of compassion too much of a stretch for us to give up the coinage of personal capital and complacency? Are we too stuck in our own skin?

You understand that I am preaching to myself here.

 

If the value of life and limb were held in universally higher esteem than the profits of the individual and the elite, then we would not see an exchange rate of hundreds of lives, thousands of injuries, hundreds of thousands of people made homeless for the customs duty on a couple of thousand tons of fertilizer.

If the way of love, the way of compassion, the way in which, as Paul advised, love makes room for those at risk, using love’s freedom to promote the common good rather than the individual’s right to flaunt it, then we would reshape the curve of this pandemic and its effects on our country. “Be careful,” Paul writes, “… that the exercise of your freedom does not become a stumbling-block to the weak” (1 Corinthians 8:9).

If we were to choose the way of love over the way of blood, then our “stand your ground” laws would be grounded instead in the commandment to turn the other cheek.

What would we pay to defray the risk of storing explosive chemicals among people’s living spaces? What would we give for an economy that could never be said to depend upon a thousand deaths per day from pandemic to stay afloat? What would we confront in order to be able to offer a cup of clean water to the children of Flint?

If we were to refuse to be conformed to the standards of this fallen world and its uneven powers, if we were to exercise our vocation to walk on water, to reshape the world around us, in Jesus’ name, in the name of love, what storm would stop us?

What would it take for us to get out of the boat?

The disciples, seeing Jesus walking upon the water, were terrified. By the time he had hauled Peter out of the sea and into the boat, they were in awe, and they worshipped him.

 

As far as we know, Peter never did walk on the water again, and he stumbled more than once more, denying Jesus as the rooster crowed over the Friday dawn. But he no longer doubted that God’s kingdom was near, closer than his own skin, and he did go on to heal the sick, and raise the dead, and to root out evil in Christ’s name.

Whatever we choose as the one thing we have seen Jesus do that we would like to follow, it cannot be separated from his whole life of love. It will lead, if we follow, to the way of the cross, the way of love, the way that leads to the promised land, the kingdom of God. And if we feel ourselves sinking, we have only to reach out and Jesus will pull us up, and gently rebuke us, and it will be worth it, to weather the wind and water with him, the storm-torn elements of a new creation.

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What will you share?

If I were preaching tomorrow (which I am not), I might be inclined to ask.

Now that everyone can distribute crumbs among the masses with a keystroke, what will we share?

Crumbs of comfort, or of shame;

kernels of truth, or disinformation;

pieces of repentance, or of pride;

the bread of life, or poison?

This is not a call to put on a happy face, nor to pretend that all is well in a world where still we pray, fervently, “thy kingdom come, but soon, please, soon …”

Comfort comes on the heels of grief;

truth can be hard to swallow;

repentance reflects on the rough stuff;

but when Jesus saw the people spread out on the hillside like sheep, like sheep without a shepherd, he had compassion for them, and he had mercy. He fed them with the bread of life: his life. He gave thanks, broke the bread, and had his disciples distribute enough, with baskets returned to them, enough to sustain them on their journey home across the small Sea.

Whatever we share among the masses, will it be worthy of partaking in memory of him?

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Who among you: an open letter about guns

An open letter to the Ohio Senate 133rd General Assembly regarding Senate Bill 137: Exempt from training if allowed to go armed in school safety zone


[Jesus said] “Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for bread, will give a stone? Or if the child asks for a fish, will give a snake?” (Matthew 6:9-10)

Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for a lesson, will show them a gun?

Asking a teacher to carry a gun into a classroom is asking for trouble. It introduces the means of deadly accident, of impulsive and irreversible injury, to a place that should be intent on the promotion of life and flourishing. It increases the escalation of violence in our communities, the reliance on violent force to quell our fears. Caution: the threat of violence does not diminish the risk of actual physical and moral injury.

Asking a teacher to carry a gun as though they go into battle when they go into school, even when they are not trained as soldiers, is asking for trouble. Specifically exempting such faculty and staff from proper training in the deployment or restraint of their weapons in the course of their work is actively courting trouble.

I commend to you the report of the American Bar Association: they have done the research. I do the preaching.

Introducing the means of deadly force to an environment where already those most in need of protection from discrimination and indignity are those most likely to suffer from them ratchets up the righteous anxiety of those students. It is asking for trouble.

The introduction of a deadly weapon to a classroom, even if the worst never happens, risks moral injury. To carry a gun is to consider using it. It introduces a note of defensiveness and offensive weaponry to every social interaction. It diminishes the scope of our compassion by offering a solution to situations that bypasses more patient and difficult means of resolution. It does not belong in an environment designed to provoke problem-solving, learning, and the growth and flourishing of young lives.

The Ohio legislature, as other bodies with similar influence, would do better to invest in reducing the occasions for gun violence than participating in the proliferation of deadly weapons in hands that are not at war.

You may already be familiar with what Jesus said about stumbling blocks, little ones, millstones, and the sea (Matthew 18:6).

“Woe to the world because of stumbling blocks!” Jesus continued. “Occasions for stumbling are bound to come, but woe to the one by whom the stumbling block comes!” Matthew 18:7)

Of all the people who might introduce a gun into a classroom full of children, let it not be you; let it not be on behalf of me.


This letter was edited slightly from its direct delivery to the committee considering the Bill and to my own district senator.

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Walking on water

I’ve been walking the earth in a dream,
skipping faith like pebbles across
the surface of a quiet sea

A foolish hound,
snapping at white horses, tries to catch them
as they melt under the sound

My feet are wet; the pebbles
in my pocket have become an anchor. I reach
after wild geese, grasping at feathers

A heron, surprised, sounds as though
it has been eating rocks. It rises now
with clumsy grace unfolded


It’s been a little while since I’ve shared a poem here. Between, you know, 2020 and a looming new book deadline (deadly exciting!), it’s been an interesting summer. But there is hope in the heron, and music in its rasp, and the water, the medium of God’s creation still calls us to test it with our faith, and our feet …

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Slow to anger

A sermon for the online service, 19 July 2020, using the readings for Year A Proper 11, including the parable of the wheat and the weeds.


When we read one of Jesus’ parables that ends in judgement, we might want to use as our introduction and epilogue his warning elsewhere: “Judge not, lest ye be judged.”

The temptation otherwise is either to read ourselves as the righteous and our enemies as the weeds, and secretly to revel in the thought of their comeuppance at the great conflagration; or, equally damaging, to diagnose ourselves as worthless weeds, only tolerated by the wheat that surrounds us, and doomed from our seeding to damnation.

The judgement, Jesus has warned elsewhere, is not ours to make. The servants who offer to go out and do the weeding for the landowner are rebuffed.

In fact, the parable is a model of withholding judgement so that the wheat is not damaged by a reckless and thorough weeding; there is no warrant in the kingdom of heaven, Jesus might be saying, for rash judgement and its collateral damage. Instead, we are shown the patience and forbearance of a God who is full of compassion, and slow to anger.

 

Have you heard the phrase, “cancel culture”? Its definition may be as controversial and complicated as the interpretation of a parable, but perhaps it boils down to the battle and balance between holding a person accountable for wrongdoing and allowing them the grace to redeem themselves, if they show any inclination to do so.

Certainly, actions and words have consequences. Some offenses are so egregious that the answer is clear. We have seen talk shows and dramatic roles cancelled when the #MeToo movement brought the misdeeds of various men to light, and rightly so. A politician can be righteously cancelled out of office with a vote. If a business is offensive or abusive, we can sometimes refuse to do business with them.

But what if they were convicted, by court or conscience, of their offense, and paid a penance, reparations of some sort, and publicly repented: would we forgive them?

At is most extreme, a culture of cancellation contributes to a culture of death. Those who have been tried, convicted, and officially sentenced to death live out for us our fantasies of judgement and a clean wheat field. Three times in the past week, after holding back its hand for seventeen years, three men have been killed on our behalf by federal execution.

Deacon Josh knows more about this aspect of our cultural judgement than I do, having ministered for years to men living in that valley of the shadows known as Death Row. But I also draw on the wisdom and faithful hope of Beth Kissileff, whose husband leads one of the congregations that met at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh when a man bent on sowing evil burst through their Sabbath doors. Beth wrote against the government’s move to seek the death penalty for the man who killed her friends; partly because that judgement belongs to God alone. Beth, via the Religion News Service, quoted her husband, Rabbi Jonathan Perlman:

“Our Bible has many laws about why people should be put to death, it’s true,” my husband said. “But our sages and rabbis decided that after biblical times these deaths mean death at the hands of heaven, not a human court.”

Beyond that, and the slightest chance and hope that the man might repent of his sins, given a life long enough to reflect upon them, Beth pointed out that our clumsy attempts to pull out the weeds with the wheat can damage the tender plants that we’re trying to protect. Families and survivors of capital offenses endure multiple trials that can drag on for long years, delaying healing and wholeness, prolonging the harvest of pain. This, too, is collateral damage from our culture of judgement and cancellation; and there is no warrant for collateral damage in the kingdom of heaven.

 

I can’t help but think of John Lewis this morning; a man who, despite those who sought to cancel him, stood strong. He ended up serving in government, where wheat and weeds are sometimes difficult to tell apart. He recognized the tension of the need to act decisively to end evil, while holding fast to the gentle optimism that non-violence breeds, the impatient patience of the justice-seeker. He brought forth good fruit despite the strangling weeds, the poisonous strain of racism.

Of course, we hold one another accountable for egregious actions, words, attitudes. Of course, where there is evil at work, we can and should respond with a little bit of “good trouble.” Of course, there are rightful consequences. But we do not own the wheat, or its harvest, and the weeds are not ours to destroy. At the end of the age, Jesus says, it is the angels who will exercise judgement over us.

 

I came across a story online last week which I share with permission from my friend, Amanda Wolf. Amanda is a keen, not to say fanatical, cyclist, familiar to all Bishop’s Bike Rides participants and many other members of many other communities, including the cancer support charity that she rides for every year. Last week, she was riding out my way when a van nearly took her out altogether. Thank God, she was ok.

I’m still in awe of this story because of the grace that bursts out of it. It would have been easy to write off the driver of the van as a total weed, based on his actions. Instead, an encounter that could have led to real, physical, economic, social, and spiritual injury allowed, with a little forbearance and a lot of humility, for an abundance of healing.

The van bore the livery of a local business. Amanda, posting the story of her close encounter on Facebook, duly named and shamed the business for its recklessness and disregard for her human life and safety, and encouraged her friends not to send their business that way.

But then later that same day, I saw another post. It read:

In a previous episode of my Facebook, you might have witnessed me posting about getting sideswiped by a local business owner this morning on my bike, and I called him out on it. You also might have seen his jerky retort and lack of understanding of bike law.
You might also have noticed that post disappeared.
All for good reason.
Long story short, Cards In Your Yard has a better understanding of bike law, we’re friends now, and shortly I’ll be putting up a raffle for your own free yard card as long as you live in the counties he services.
All to benefit American Cancer Society Pan Ohio Hope Ride.
There could not have been a happier ending to this story. I hope it makes your day because it certainly made mine.

It did make my day, and it reminded me of Jesus, who told his disciples to be wise as serpents and innocent as doves, to love neighbour and enemy well and alike, and to let the angels worry about who among us is whole wheat or a little bit of a weed.

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How to grow a prayer life

A sermon of Morning Prayer, 12 July 2020. The readings are for Year A Proper 10, and the service is online here.


In the beginning (and certainly you have heard this before), when the God created everything that is, when God called it into being and named it with a Word, God saw that it was good. When the earth was ready, God created humanity out of it to be cast in the very image and likeness, the shadow and sound, the mirror and the echo of the divine. God declared that this was very good.

You were created out of the earth and out of the Word to be a good and rich medium for the Word, that it might dwell within you, and grow within you, and form you toward the Word of God, in harmony with God’s creative will.

Jesus told a parable to his disciples. It is recorded almost everywhere; it must have been a popular story. It is unusual, because while we are told that Jesus taught in parables publicly and explained them to his disciples privately, conducting open lectures and small group seminars, you might say, it is rare for us to get a glimpse into those more intimate tutorials, when Jesus explains himself.

It is more than probable that we have only one student’s imperfect and incomplete understanding of the mystery of this parable. Parables are not usually so neat, so tightly defined; it is possible that some things have been lost in translation from the original conversation at the feet of the Teacher, Jesus.

But the theme of God’s abundance, of good soil producing more than could be imagined, when the conditions are right and the kingdom of heaven is at hand – that we have heard from Jesus before, and not only from him, but from the prophets who preceded him.

As the rain and the snow come down from heaven,
and do not return there until they have watered the earth,
making it bring forth and sprout,
giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater,
so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth;
it shall not return to me empty,
but it shall accomplish that which I purpose,
and succeed in the thing for which I sent it,

writes Isaiah.

Did you know that this service of Morning Prayer, which we share together Sunday by Sunday when we are unable to gather for the Eucharist; that this and the Noonday Prayer, and Evening, and the end of day service of Compline are appointed for every day in our Book of Common Prayer?

When we recite this prophecy of Isaiah as a prayer during our Daily Offices (it often comes up on a Tuesday or a Friday), we add,

For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
nor my ways your ways, says the Lord.
For as the heavens are higher than the earth,
so are my ways higher than your ways,
and my thoughts than your thoughts.

We who are made in the shadow, in the silver mirror of God’s image, the echo of the Word; we are not God. But we are made of the earth that is the medium of God’s creative Word, and our vocation, our calling, God’s word to us is not to return empty, depleted, like the void before creation, but full of the life that has been lent to us by our Creator.

There are many obstacles, Jesus’ student tells us.

Our soil is corrupted by sin: by greed, racism, superiority, self-righteousness, self-importance. Our soil is poisoned by the effects of sin: by the many attacks on human dignity and sanctity that a person may endure that inhibit their ability to thrive.

Unless we are watered and shaded and cared for, our soil becomes depleted, starved, diseased, burned out. But when we tend to our growth medium, remembering God’s design for us, then in partnership with God’s Word we produce fruit that feeds the world.

There are many good opportunities to feed and nurture the good soil of our souls. We can do so much to improve our understanding of the human dignity of those around us, to strengthen the bonds of affection so as to mirror the image of the Holy Trinity, recognizing our interdependence and our responsibility to be our siblings’ keeper, recognizing our need for the help and love of one another.

We can undertake to study anti-racism, and respond honestly and repentantly to what we learn.

We can practice generosity, of spirit and of resources, remembering to render kindness before blame, to seek mercy as the mirror of God’s justice; to enact feeding miracles and to defy the rationing of life’s resources in order to reflect God’s abundance and grace.

We can do this by paying attention to the word that God has sown within us at our creation, the word of God that is so very good; by nurturing it and feeding it and watering it and giving it shade and sunlight, so that it doesn’t get burned out of us, and so that our spirits, enlivened by the breath of God, might not grow too weary for words; so that the knowledge of God’s presence within us and among us might grow to give us shade and rest.

Last time our Vestry met (which we will do again tomorrow), we discussed how our pandemic response has to move from one of emergency management and reactivity to one of planned sustainability. We have been transplanted into a new and enduring reality. We know now that this new situation will last longer than any of us imagined at the beginning. If we are not to be choked up by the troubles or cares of the world, we need to take care of the soil of our souls, and the loam of our lives, if we are to continue as good mediums for God’s Word.

God comes to us in prayer, like the rain or the morning dew, and will not leave until God’s purpose for us, God’s love for us, has succeeded.

I mentioned that the Office of Morning Prayer is appointed and provided for daily in our BCP. There are many ways to create a regular rhythm of prayer. I sometimes use a podcast from Forward Movement. You can use the Book of Common Prayer and a Bible to find the readings and psalms for each day. You can use the shortened services – a minute or two – Daily Devotions for Individuals and Families, and add a Bible reading each day. If you’d like, I can put together a brief tutorial on how to find your way around the Daily Office, or drop off a BCP at your home. You might choose a brief prayer in the morning, and a fuller Evening Prayer when you have more leisure after work. There are any number of daily inspirational readings and prayers available. You can simply set an alarm to remind you, once or twice a day, to rest in God’s shadow.

However you take care of your prayer life, you have help; whether from the resources of our prayerbook and podcasts, or from conversations with friends and mentors from the church or from other aspects of your spiritual lives; always from the Holy Spirit who intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words. I am always available by appointment to meet safely or to talk by phone, to pray with you, as I hope you pray for me.

In all of this, as you work the soil of your soul, do not be afraid of the weeds or the heat or the evil one. For God meets us in our prayer, and it is God who says,

… my word … that goes out from my mouth;
it shall not return to me empty,
but it shall accomplish that which I purpose,
and succeed in the thing for which I sent it.

God is working in us, and through us, and with us; and God’s purpose for us is, as it ever has been, very good.

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Free will and freedom

A sermon for 5 July, 2020. The lessons are for Year A Proper 9 (Track 2). The service can also be viewed on YouTube or Facebook.


The apostle Paul would like the citizens of the greatest empire on earth to understand that freedom is not necessarily what they might think it to be, and that the pleasures of independence pale in comparison to complete obedience to the will of our Creator, in whose image and by whose will we were made. If only our desires and whims could be realigned with God’s, we would be complete. Only when our free will is united with God’s loving will for us are we truly free to be complete and perfect humans.

We catch glimpses of what that could be like, in moments of abandoned love, without self-regard and pure; in moments of communion with the rest of God’s good creation.

Paul was the Roman citizen, and the Pharisee, with civil and religious privilege. And he would give it all up for the freedom to follow God’s will instead of his own. He knew, from his experience of Christ and of the world, that no political system, even the lauded Pax Romana, can bring peace to our souls; that Caesar will not save his citizens; that we are citizens of another kingdom, the reign and realm of God.

We know the ideals to which we aspire. They are hardwired into us, since we are made in the image of God, and created for the love of God.

The love of God. The love of neighbour – every neighbour. Equality of respect and dignity for all, we hold these truths to be self-evident: this is how we would like to live.

But Paul knows that it is not so easy, since sin seems to have us cornered. Independence becomes individualism. Self-governance turns too easily to selfishness.

Independence does not mean that each man is an island. The Triune God upon whom we are modelled is a model of interconnectedness, of the unity of community. Independence from sin gives us the opportunity to explore our true interdependence, following in the footsteps of Jesus Christ; following the dance of the Holy Trinity.

Individualism is not independence: this pandemic has illustrated that. None of us will be free from it unless we prioritize the health and welfare of the bodies around us to our own preferences and perceptions of freedom.

Washing hands, keeping our distance to preserve the precious breath that the Holy Spirit has placed in all of us, wearing masks, whether we like it or not, are acts of love, and it is love that, in the end, will set us free.

We know from our faith that freedom from tyranny means the freedom not to tyrannize.

Freedom from fear means the freedom not to frighten.

Freedom from oppression offers the freedom not to oppress.

We know from our history that freedom from discrimination only works if we claim the freedom to undo, unravel, repent and repair the damage that has already been done.

Freedom from the debt of sin extends the opportunity not to add to another person’s burdens. Remember Jesus’ parables? Forgiveness is always to be passed on; freedom from owing one’s neighbour does not free one from being a neighbour.

Freedom from sin means the submission of our free will to the will of the life-giving, loving, liberating God who created us for good.

In this sense, Jesus was the freest, most independent man who ever lived. Free from sin, free from all that the devil tempted him with in the wilderness; free from selfishness. Independent of ambition; he entered Jerusalem on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey, while Pilate processed with pomp and ceremony from the other side. He was independent of the powers and principalities that tried to shape his life, shorten his reach; he told them clearly, “I lay down my life for the sheep… No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again.” (John 10:15b,18)

He lived a life so perfectly aligned with the pattern that God had used for it, the pattern of unselfish, ungrasping, life-giving love that he proved himself finally free even from death, independent even of the powers of the grave.

It is in him, in his life, in his Gospel that we find our holiday, our celebration, our Sabbath rest. While we strive, with Paul, to do here and now what is right and good and promotes the life, liberty, and happiness of all around us, It is in God alone, with God’s help alone, with the love of God together that we find, at last, a more perfect union.

Amen.

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The colour of God

How many times did you hear that verse growing up? How many pamphlets and leaflets have you read it in?

“For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 6:23)

We have a language problem here. We have a serious, spiritual issue with the way in which we hear this verse. There’s a chasm between Paul’s original rhetoric and our understanding. It’s not just the way in which the good news of God’s grace has been turned into a threat, although most of the pamphlets I’ve thrown away over the years try to evangelize by the wages of death instead of the promise of life. That’s a problem, but so too is the fact that this verse is the culmination of a chapter of a letter from Paul to the Romans which uses slavery to describe our salvation; a chapter that uses the word “slave,” whether to sin or to God, eight times in the last eight verses.

Now, we might say, Paul was just using the language and social structure of his day to illustrate a point in a way that would be familiar to his readers. But I’m not willing to let Paul off the hook that easily. Jesus Christ, whom Paul proclaims, lived and died, rose and ascended to save sinners, thanks be to God; but along the way, and not by-the-by, he said that he had come to bring good news to the poor, freedom to the captive and to the oppressed (Luke 4:18-19). There are no slaves in the kingdom of heaven.

But here’s another problem: we do not hear the word “slave” in the same language as Paul wrote it. We don’t even hear it in the same way as one another. Because of our place in the world, we cannot help but hear the language of slavery in Black and White. Whomever we claim as our ancestors, we cannot hear the word, “slave,” without our history colouring it in.

I can’t speak for others, but I can tell you that is a particular, spiritual problem for people who look like me.

I read a book on Thursday afternoon (I mean, I sat down and read the whole thing in an afternoon) called Dear Church: A Love Letter from a Black Preacher to the Whitest Denomination in the US. Lenny Duncan, a Lutheran minister of Word and Sacrament writes,

Church, the cross was raised high by slaveholders… (Duncan, 44)

He writes to me, a White woman in the American church of today,

… it’s not just my freedom you are risking …, but also your own. You are just as trapped by the effects of chattel slavery and the broken cycles it has set in motion in our nation and church. ( Duncan, 48)

Why is this language gap a problem, even, or especially, for White people? Because it’s not just my freedom that is at risk, but my relationship with God in Christ, which is my salvation. Because when I hear the terms of salvation in Black and White, master and slave, I am tempted to see myself on one side or the other, and I am tempted to imagine God right alongside me.

But there are no slaves in the kingdom of heaven. There are no slave masters in the kingdom of God.

We need a radical reordering of our language, our thoughts, our prayers. Paul’s rhetoric will not do. God is not a slave master; God is not on the side of the slave holders. Jesus, God Incarnate, was a vagrant preacher, a poor man of an oppressed and occupied race and nation, who was arrested on trumped-up charges, beaten, and killed by the authorities for being too … [you know the word I want to say]; for being too much.

We need to remake our image of God to remember that at the heart of the Gospel, at the crux of the story of salvation, we do not find power, mastery, wealth, or political prowess. We find instead a man, a person, thumbing his nose at all of that and at the devil who tempted him with it.

That is the nature, the colour of God.

God so loved the world, that the lesson God wanted it to learn was not one of power, or wealth, or conquest, but the simple, defiant lesson of love. Love God, love your neighbour, love your enemy, just love.

I know, you were expecting an uplifting sermon about being back together in the church. But forgive me: what if our language about that needs updating, too?

I love you all, and I miss you as much as we all miss the old days of February, but I’m afraid that the way forward might not be somehow to push back toward the routines and rituals in which we had become comfortable. What if we are not going back to February any more than we are returning to the 1950s and cigarettes at coffee hour, as one of my colleagues pointed out; any more than to the 1850s and the era of legalized slavery? What if God is calling us into a new creation?

Please understand, I do not in any way believe that God inflicts a deadly and debilitating virus on millions of people so that a few can have an epiphany, a spiritual awakening. But what if we were to use and treat this season of unusual worship and unaccustomed challenges not as an interruption to the work of the church, but as an intervention, a call to awaken and with renewed vigour pursue the will of God, the love of neighbour, the restoration of creation?

We will not find the kingdom of heaven in the past; perhaps we can look for it in the present.

We will not find the kingdom of heaven in the past, but we do find it in the life, death, resurrection, and ascension, the love of Jesus Christ, our Lord, whose advice was to offer kindness, hospitality, humility, good news to the poor and release to the captive and the oppressed; whose life is eternal; and who promised his most bewildered disciples, “I am with you always [and everywhere], to the end of the age.”

Amen.


Lenny Duncan, Dear Church: A Love Letter from a Black Preacher to the Whitest Denomination in the US (Fortress Press, 2019)

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