When you pray

A sermon for the Church of the Epiphany, Year C Proper 12. The lectionary readings include Luke’s narration of Jesus’ introduction of the Lord’s Prayer to his disciples.

This was the prayer that first made me fall for Jesus, when I was a child. Of course, I learnt the expanded form that we use in worship; the one that we prayed, hands together, eyes closed, every morning at school assembly time (never at home). But even in its stripped down, barest form, as Luke presents Jesus teaching it, the world which this prayer conjures into being is enough to set my spirit on fire.

Your kingdom come.

This, for me, is the heart and soul of the vision that Jesus creates with his prayer, the world in which his prayer is completed.

Jesus came preaching, “Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand.” The foundation of his prayer is this petition, that God complete the establishment of that kingdom.

A kingdom in which everyone is fed, and has enough to eat. In which second chances are granted. Where penury is unheard of, because instead of owing one another, we forgive one another. We work it out. We work together. A kingdom in which there are no dirty tricks, no deceit, no hidden obstacles to trip a person up and try her faith. There is no need for all of that, when everyone has enough, and all are cared for, and repentance is a normal, every day activity.

As a child, focused on fairness (the worst indictment a child can offer is, “but that’s not fair!”), the justice enacted in this kingdom was clear to me. As a child, one is powerless, always in debt to others for her life, her food, her family. This prayer, with its direct address to the Father, affirmed my dignity in the world order of God’s kingdom. As a child, often confused by the state of the world and the actions of others, the promise of a straightforward, uncrooked regime offered me safety. The buzz words of love, grace, faith, hope do not feature in this prayer; but the world that it envisions is one crafted by those gospel values that first made me fall in love with God, and with Christ Jesus.

Thy kingdom come.

If you were to take the Book of Common Prayer from the pew pocket in front of you, and read it from front to back, skipping the calendar charts, perhaps, and the historical documents, but checking every single form of worship offered for prayer together, I challenge you to find one that omits the Lord’s Prayer. I’m not saying that you won’t find any orders in which you could technically get away without it, but you’d be hard pressed to deny the intent of our common life to stay close to the directions that Jesus gave to his disciples: “When you pray, say this.”

So what, we might reasonably ask, is the purpose of praying the same words over and over again, every time we come together, and often when we are apart, day in and day out, till kingdom come?

A few months ago, I reviewed a book by Derek Penwell called, Outlandish: An Unlikely Messiah, A Messy Ministry, and the Call to Mobilize, published by Chalice Press. Penwell examines this prayer of Jesus and posits that as much as it calls upon God to establish the kingdom of heaven on earth, it is also designed to galvanize us towards action. Think about it: why, after asking God to forgive our sins, would we add a line in our own prayer about forgiving those who owe us? Penwell argues that we are begging for freedom from economic oppression, the systems of debt and exploitation that have kept us from loving our neighbours freely. He offers that when we ask God to deliver us from the time of trial, we are begging quite literally for freedom from our present and oppressive systems of injustice.

“Of course [I concluded in my review], the implication is that if we are asking God to deliver us from systems that we the people have organized around ourselves (or one another, or just those others), then we had better get to work answering our own prayers, with God’s help.”

In other words, instead of ticking off what life owes us, we might examine our conscience for which sins we still need forgiven.

We might consider, while praying for our own daily bread, who is feeding our neighbour’s children.

We might wonder whether the scaffold of our legal system is really so robust and so righteous and reaches so far towards the heavens that we have every right to sit in the Almighty’s judgement seat and consign individuals to die, and to execute them; or whether we are building ourselves a Babel tower. “Save us from the time of trial,” indeed.

We pray to repent, as Jesus taught us, because the kingdom of God is at hand.

Last week, we talked about taking care whose vision of the world we chose to follow towards glory; about choosing to invest ourselves in that which is loving, liberating, life-giving. Once again this week, we read in the epistle to the Colossians the warning, Take care not to become captivated by worldly philosophies that lead to ruin. Do not invest in empty promises.

As you have received Christ Jesus the Lord, continue to live your lives in him, rooted and built up in him and established in the faith, just as you were taught, abounding in thanksgiving. (Colossians 2:6-7)

Stay rooted in the life of Jesus, and bring forth the fruit of Christ’s kingdom.

The story that Jesus tells right after teaching us this prayer, at least according to Luke, reminds us that the plant cannot produce fruit unless it exists in an ecosystem that pollinates it; one that is cooperative and collaborative.

In the kingdom of God, the absolute duty of one man to offer hospitality to the unexpected guest is matched by the duty of his neighbour to help him out, when he is short of the resources to meet his obligations. Even in the dead of night, when no other help is in sight, and the world is sleeping, these friends meet in a circle of giving, receiving, and loving the stranger. The values of sharing daily bread, forgiving what is lacking, resisting the temptation to fall back to sleep and ignore the needs of a neighbour are illustrated against the backdrop of darkness.

This, perhaps, is the point of our constant, almost redundant repetition of this prayer every single day: to train us, like vines, to stay close to the root and shoot of Jesus; to produce the fruit of the kingdom of God.

But if it achieved nothing else, the idea that this prayer could cause a child to fall in love with God may be enough. Because, in the kingdom of God that Jesus and the prophets describe, even the child who is named without pity, Lo-ruhamah, finds consolation; and even the child who is “not my people” Lo-ammi, finds a home:

and in the place where it was said to them, “You are not my people,” it shall be said to them, “Children of the living God,” (Hosea 1:10b)

when the kingdom of God is revealed, and God’s will is done on earth, as it is in heaven, and God’s Name, the name of Love, is hallowed through all our worlds.

Derek Penwell, Outlandish: An Unlikely Messiah, A Messy Ministry, and the Call to Mobilize, (Chalice Press, 2018)

Also in the background: The New Interpreter’s Bible, Volume 9: Luke-John (Abingdon Press, 1996)

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Go back home

Some of us have talked about this before. I am not always nice about it. Sometimes, I pretend obtusely to misunderstand. “When do I go home? At about 5 o’clock,” I say (that’s a lie; it’s never 5 o’clock), forcing friendly faces to explain, “No, I meant when do you go back to Britain.”

I knew that, I do not say, but your assumption seems to be that I have no home here, only in the land I left behind. “We’re visiting family in July,” I offer.

There is no animosity in their question, which is why I feel almost guilty for playing with them. But when I have crossed oceans, taken oaths, paid plenty of taxes, and filled in a forest full of paperwork to make a home here, it is a little galling to be asked on a regular basis when I am leaving.

These exchanges are prickly only on my side. And the ones that come with thorns, telling me to “go back where I came from,” arise only when I have said something offensive, such as that gun violence in this country is out of control, or that children deserve to go to schools that do not need armed guards., for example I have decided that I do not owe those anonymous callers an explanation of my citizenship status. I do not ask them for theirs.

My White skin and English-accented sentences protect me from being ordered away by strangers in the parking lot, or at the supermarket. I am privileged that way, which is why I sometimes get to play the innocent.

On my better days, I might take the time to explain that it would be more appropriate not to choose any person’s story for them, assuming a whole lot about their history,  their identity, their family, their future.

I may try to persuade you that it is impossible to tell, at a glance, whether the child of God waiting at the bus stop is fleeing for Egypt, or seeking the Promised Land, or petitioning Rome, or is simply heading home.

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Prophets and privateers: by their fruits shall ye know them

A sermon for the sixth Sunday after Pentecost at the Church of the Epiphany in Euclid, Ohio. In the news this week, the crisis of immigrant and refugee detention centers continues. A presidential campaign rally broke into chants of “Send her back,” targeting a congressional representative. It is the fiftieth anniversary weekend of the first footsteps on the moon. We also memorialized a parishioner who died in the spring, and his wife of some sixty years.

From the readings: Amos had a vision of a basket of summer fruits, and the people’s just desserts.

Amos has been seeing visions of how things will end up. His basket of fruit, in Hebrew, is a play on words: fruits and ends. The fruits which he sets before our vision are the end, the outcome, the results of the people’s actions and inactions, religion and rebellion.

At best, a basket of fruit might conjure up appetite, and gratitude, and wonder at the Providence of God. I have been following, as I am sure many of you have, the fiftieth anniversary celebrations of the first human footprints on the moon. But landing on a space rock, as astonishing an accomplishment as it is, is not an end to itself. The men who went there took Communion, took a Bible, took their sense of wonder. They understood that there is an end beyond our imaginings, in which all our journeys are begun and run their course; the imagination of our Creator.

We have mentioned Angus and Anna this morning, and we will again; Angus, as a physicist and an astronomer knew well this sense of wonder. In our book group this morning, we heard C.S. Lewis describe it:

“Any patch of sunlight in a wood will show you something about the sun which you could never get from reading books on astronomy.”

And so, in a shaft of sunlight, like a still life, Amos presents to us as a vision of endings a bowl of summer fruit – an appealing, appetizing image, you might think. But Amos’ words to the people do not match that palatable impression. They are, instead, a warning against strange fruit.

“Beware,” Jesus preaches elsewhere, “of false prophets.” He doesn’t mean Amos. Amos’ vision is faithful. But beware, Jesus says, “of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous. You will know them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thorns, or figs from thistles? So every sound tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears evil fruit. … Thus you will know them by their fruits.” (Matthew 7:15-20)

Amos warns the people to be careful of the fruit we produce. Jesus warns us to be wary whom we follow, into whose visions we invest our faith. Watch out for the fruit they produce.

Amos places before us a basket of summer fruit. We turn over the pieces, looking for something sweet – a glossy cherry, perhaps, or a crisp apple. But something is not right. There is a hardness to the grapes, and a waxiness to the skin of the pear. There is sawdust at the bottom of the bowl, instead of the dusting of peach fuzz that we expected to find. We have been fooled. The fruit is a fake. It is plastic and wood, made only to decorate the room. It is not even a still life. There is no nurture or nutrition in it. It is lifeless. It is a scam.

By their fruits shall you know them. If the vision painted for us does not nourish God’s children, nor foster their freedom, their health and wellbeing; if it proffers life with one hand and snatches it away with the other; if it distorts or defrauds, diminishes or shortchanges the image of God imprinted on any of God’s children, then it is a false vision. Watch for the bait and switch. Look out for the privateers who profit from false prophecy, while others bear the cost of their sin. By their fruits shall you know them. If the basket does not feed life, love, liberty, then it is false, and ungodly.

Try another basket. While on the surface, there is a blush to the fruit, underneath, it has gone bad. There is a bruise, and an infection that spreads from one apple to the next, until all dissolve together in their rottenness. Any new, good fruit that joins them risks their mould.

“I do not sit with false men, nor do I consort with dissemblers,” said the Psalmist. “I hate the company of evildoers, and I will not sit with the wicked.” (Psalm 26:4-5)

Of course, wickedness has become a matter of opinion to us; but by their fruits you shall know them, says Jesus. If they produce strange fruit (you remember the Billie Holiday song, written by Abel Meeropol: “ …strange fruit/blood on the leaves and blood at the root”); if they look to be producing or pollinating strange fruit, be very wary. If their fruit is poisonous to any one of God’s children, they are false prophets, and ungodly.

Fortunately, we have a healthier vision to follow. We have sounder and more sustaining food at hand. “Those who eat my flesh, and drink my blood,” Jesus says, share in the life of Christ. And those who abide close to the root and shoot of Jesus will bring forth fruit for the good of the world: lifegiving, healing, and sustaining food. That is the vision we would rather follow, and the fruit we would rather eat and offer to our neighbours, to our children, and at the altar of our God.

You know that this morning we are remembering particularly in our prayers Angus and Anna, bringing them home, as it were, one last time to Epiphany. One story that stuck with me was about how Angus would choose where to sit in this church. It was a system of randomized coin selections and manipulations that were assigned mathematical calculations that would eventually land on a point on an imaginary grid laid over the pews, and wherever that was, Angus would set himself and his family down. It was a system designed to promote equity and to eliminate bias. We each have a tendency to love best those who are like us, and to lean towards those whose sympathy we can rely on. But the love of God in Christ is unbiased and rather indiscriminate. The only way to buy into that, Angus felt, was intentionally and randomly.

“By their fruit you shall know them.” We recognize those who are sound of spirit by their actions, by their interactions with others, by the way in which they live out their faith in their daily life, in acts of wonder, of service, of kindness.

When we taste the good fruit, we know its sweetness, and its soundness. In his letter to the Galatians, Paul describes the fruit of the Spirit:

“Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such there is no law.” (Galatians 5:22)

How could anyone outlaw kindness, such as offering water to a parched man in the desert? How would anyone pass a law against gentleness, and the tender treatment of the traveller found at the side of the road? Why would anyone want to draw up rules against love?

Instead, like pollen on the breeze, or like the bees, let us randomly and intentionally propagate good fruit, seeding kindness where we can, settling gently where we land, leaving footprints grainy with wonder, spreading love across creation; for by our fruits we shall be known.

C.S. Lewis, Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc., 1963), 91

Strange Fruit, by Abel Meeropol, performed most famously by Billie Holiday (YouTube)

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Morning meditation

I squeezed in a swim
before work; the lake
was grumpy, turning
its shoulder to the shore.

Now, traffic shimmers
the road like fish, still,
something within me
flexes her wings, soaring

among the shrill gulls,
over the water.

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Do good. Don’t stop.

A sermon for the fifth Sunday after Pentecost (Year C Proper 9). Also in the news today, the humanitarian crisis in detention centers and camps holding asylum seekers and other immigrants to the United States, including children; the Women’s World Cup Final; and the July 4th weekend. Readings include the healing of Naaman, Paul’s admonition not to become weary of doing good, and the sending out and return of the seventy by Jesus.

The seventy returned to Jesus excited and amped up, saying, “You should see how we owned the forces of evil! How we slayed in the name of the Spirit! We are on fire!”

And Jesus said, “Yesss. Awesome. You are amazing. You are undefeatable. I know, I know that the way of love wins (because, ahem, I am the Way, and the Truth, and the Life). I know that you have it in you to do great things.

“But, not to rain on your parade or anything, but … don’t peg your faith, your hope, your sense of self too closely to the score. It is more important to endure.

Do not become distracted, even by your own indisputable awesomeness, from the way of love.”

This morning’s readings contrast the thrill of the grand gesture against the quiet satisfaction of doing the right thing, come what may, do or die, in a world that may or may not reward it. They encourage us to stay strong, to stay the course, knowing that whether or not the world recognizes it, the reign of God is not far from us.

So Naaman is angry that his healing miracle is not more splashy (pun intended) – but Elisha is more interested in witnessing to the word of God than in pandering to the preferences of an imperial commander. And still, Naaman is healed, when he decides to submit to God’s way, because God is merciful, when we look to them for loving kindness.

Jesus sends the seventy out “like lambs among wolves,” travelling quietly, preaching generously, refusing to be distracted from the way of Jesus into arguments, disputes, or discouragement.

Paul counsels gentleness, and warns against the weariness that comes from setting one’s sights on showy achievements, rather than the steady work of simply doing what is right and loving, for the good of all people and the glory of God.

This is not to discourage grand gestures, and there is certainly a place in our worship for God to celebrate the achievements of the gospel, especially when we have been granted a part in them – what joy! But the way of the gospel, of the cross and the resurrection is walked one step at a time. Sometimes it runs uphill. Sometimes it is dirty, dusty, full of stumbling blocks. Sometimes, it requires assistance, like Simon of Cyrene stepping in to help Jesus with his cross – “bear one another’s burdens,” Paul advises, even as each carries their own. Sometimes, it requires a Sabbath rest in the quiet darkness of the tomb, awaiting resurrection. Sometimes, seemingly insignificant actions build to big rewards.

I read a sweet story recently about a woman in British Columbia who waved every day out of her front window to the schoolchildren going by. It was perhaps the smallest and simplest of gestures, yet it conveyed the message that every child of God needs to hear: You are seen. You are recognized. Your presence matters. You are loved.

The story hit the papers because in May, Mrs Davidson moved from her house to an assisted living facility, no longer on the children’s route to school. Before she left, hundreds of the students she had greeted through the years gathered on her lawn to blow her kisses and wave their signs of love and gratitude to her. Who knows how many times a child had set out on a day that didn’t feel so good, that loomed like a forbidding mountain before them. Who knows how many times they had pegged their hope, their encouragement on seeing that wave, that smile, that small gesture of acknowledgement, the love that would keep them going, one foot in front of another, giving them courage to face the day to come. Through small and faithful gestures of love, Mrs Davidson had taught a generation of children that there would always be someone watching for them, waiting for them, caring about them, their lives, their feelings, their seasons; and they delighted in her affection, and their own love grew. What a parable of God’s loving care for God’s children.

Of course, it isn’t always so simple. Last summer, you remember that while I was visiting General Convention, some hundreds of us travelled to a detention center in Texas holding immigrant and refugee women, many separated from their children. We prayed, we sang, we preached (even better, Michael Curry preached). About half the group or more defied the limits of our event permit, broke away from the pack, and walked the road to the front of the detention center, and waved to the women inside. The imprisoned women described through their contacts later the strength they derived from being seen, being loved; those waves of love mattered. Yet we know that so many of them, or other women and men like them, might still be separated from their children; that they are suffering in squalid conditions unbecoming of one made in the image of God; and that we continue to fail miserably to sustain their children in the knowledge that they are deeply and deservedly beloved.

“The enormity of the challenge is daunting. It is easy to feel helpless to make a difference. While we cannot do everything, we can do something,” Bishop Curry said this month. We can call those representatives who, on our behalf, are elected to organize a righteous, respectful, and human response to those seeking asylum in this country, and call them to account where that response is unacceptable. Where we find opportunity, we can share our resources with refugees resettling in our local communities. We can always pray. We can promote, with our lips and with our lives, in actions large and small, with faithfulness the dignity of every human being made in the very image of our God.

Do not grow weary, Paul advises. Do not pin your hopes on the glorious accolades of empires, splashy success stories, Jesus warns; but don’t give up. As labourers in God’s fields of justice, and of mercy, hoe a straight row, feed the good seed, and do not get tangled up in the weeds. Do good wherever and however you can, for the love of God.

Jesus tells his disciples – and you are his disciples – “You are indisputably awesome. You have infinite potential to love and to be loved. You have great power over all of your adversaries, the serpents and scorpions that bite and sting. Their poison cannot contaminate you, who are sustained by the blood of Christ. Your names are written in heaven.

And even when it seems that no one is paying attention, when no one will hear you, your love, large or small, is not wasted. Let your peace return to you. For in Christ, in love, in fierce righteousness, justice, and in peace, the kingdom of God draws ever near.”


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The cathedral

Entering a slanted cathedral,

pilgrim feet sheathed in tourist shoes,

watching for the Spirit’s tell

between the illustrated tombs;

some unquiet air consecrated

to the sighs of an unquiet world.

If our hearts remain stone, and cold,

at least, let their chambers echo mercy.

Attune their empty rhythm to

these stubborn remnants of your praise.

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On a mountain of modest height,
rendered in verse for its appetite
for irony and steadfastness,
they found the man, the poets say,
guarding his skeleton where it lay.

The way to the summit is strewn
with the rubble of prayer, sown
among the crags and cloven rock;
the shifting slate of creation
leavened by small revelation.

The hill, unmoved by pilgrims’ passion,
has shrugged off radioactive ash,
the dust of human hubris, and ice.
The retreat is littered with the living,
hauling home their hope and misgiving.

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