All Souls

O eternal Lord God, who holdest all souls in life … (Book of Common Prayer, 202)

If tomorrow is Hallowe’en, then Friday is All Saints’ Day. It follows, then, that Saturday celebrates All Souls. Even now that I am older, I count off the days like a younger woman following discreet symbols on her calendar.

November 2nd, All Souls, is not the day that my first love died. It is only the date upon which its demise was definitively confirmed, and its remains removed from my womb, which had refused till now, in its grief, to give them up. It was as though my flesh and blood themselves held out hope of a miracle, despite the signs already apprehended by my rational mind.

Was it too early to consider it a soul? For the longest time, ensoulment was presumed to take place at the quickening – the first movements of the foetus felt by its parent. These, in my informed imagination, were the signs of God’s intention toward adoption of the unborn child, the echo of the breath poured into God’s first child, formed of the earth and set in motion by the Spirit. This one left long before that could happen, but if its soul was held back in heaven, never to be inserted into the tiny, textbook form on the disrupted black screen, I was convinced that there was time yet for some reunion with my flesh and blood, glowing, unformed bone, untold name, ungrown infant.

Although my body still bears grief, stumbling into November with its ash and bonfire embers, the ghost of that fist of flesh contracting as though still holding fast, I reason with my bones, there is no reasonable cause for sadness, if this slight soul never left heaven, never fell, never bruised, nor ached. I imagine that it waits, as does my body, for our first meeting, one day when our souls will substitute for sight and know one another by the resolution of a long-suspended chord.

Posted in Holy Days, spiritual autobiography | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

Fight the good fight

A sermon for October 27th 2019 (Year C Proper 25) at the Church of the Epiphany, Euclid, Ohio. Readings include Paul’s letter to Timothy, in which he reflects on fighting the good fight, finishing the face, keeping the faith, as he faces his impending end in Rome.

This week’s hymnody is a trip down memory lane for me. “Fight the good fight” (Hymnal 1982 #552) is a hymn that I haven’t heard or sung in decades. I remember learning it in elementary school. We sang it to a different tune – one that was light and not much like a fight song.

The language of fighting is not the language that I would choose for my own prayer or worship. We’ve known each other long enough now that you might guess that I’m something of a pacifist, at least most of the time.

So I found myself wondering what it meant to Paul to fight a “good fight.” You may not know that in Arabic, that phrase is translated as jihad – a shock to western ears, perhaps; a sign of how complicated the world has become. What defined the good fight for Paul, as he sat in his prison house in Rome, awaiting the penultimate judgement of the empire, his almost certain martyrdom, still supremely confident in the final judgement of Christ?

The good fight, it seems, is not necessarily one that one would win, at least in the eyes of the world.

While Paul was responsible for the planting and nurture of countless churches in numerous cities and countries across the empire, and while his legacy remains with us today in the form of his letters, his theological influence, and the descendants of those many churches, he ended his life almost certainly in martyrdom, having failed to persuade the powers that be of his justification, of Christ’s Resurrection.

But Paul, walking through the valley of the shadow of death, was not disappointed. As a Jewish man deeply familiar with that psalm and its promises, he was claiming his reward, and planning his habitation in the house of the Lord, forever.

We know surprisingly little about Paul’s life. He is introduced in the book of Acts as a young man, going by the name of Saul at this point, and intent on the destruction of the new sect of Christianity. Instead, he finds himself confronted on the road to Damascus by a theophany, an in-breaking of the direct, discernible, and unmistakable presence of God in the person of Jesus, who demands to know why Saul is persecuting him. (Elsewhere, Jesus has spoken of his identification with the suffering, the hungry, the imprisoned, the persecuted (Matthew 25).)

Henceforth, Saul considers himself to be an apostle, an eye-witness of Jesus’ power and resurrection, and one sent out to preach that Resurrection to all people. He argues, according to Acts, for the extension of the gospel beyond the confines of the synagogue and the Jewish community to the Gentiles.

A.N. Wilson, the secular, not to say sceptical, historian and biographer, suggests that were it not for Paul, we would not know the stories that most influenced us growing up. If Paul had not broken Christianity out of the Jewish mold, Wilson argues, then it would have remained a minority, Jewish sect, and we would be as sketchy in our knowledge of Adam and Eve, David and Goliath, Jonah and the big fish, Noah and the ark as most of us are with the Maccabees, and the story behind Hannukah (Wilson, 14).

We owe our conversion and our entire culture, our knowledge not only of Christ but of the God of Abraham, Isaiah, and Esther to Paul; hence his confidence in the face of the executors of the emperor.

Paul has come a long way from the zealot youth who nodded approvingly at the execution of those whom he considered dangerous heretics and irresponsible infidels, who even volunteered for persecution duty. He has learned finally what the prophets had been telling him all along: that God’s loving-kindness extends beyond our reckoning, and that true religion loves mercy, does justice, and is overall humble, not seeking to outdo, outrun, nor second-guess the righteous love of God.

For the sake of that righteousness, Paul has endured with gladness (or at least without losing faith) shipwreck, snakebite, arrests, imprisonment, abandonment, assaults, and exile.

The good fight, Paul has learned, is the one that he doesn’t mind losing, so long as he may keep his martyr’s crown, so long as he has hold of the hem of Jesus’ robe.

After all, Jesus himself faced the same judgement of the empire, and the same ignominious, criminal execution at its hands. His enemies thought that it was a defeat. They were wrong.

It’s interesting to wonder – and we will never know, in this lifetime – what Paul’s role was in that event, whether he did, in fact, participate in the first persecution of Jesus in the flesh. Paul never mentions having seen Jesus before his vision on the road to Damascus, and it is commonplace to assume, as my old teacher E.P. Sanders does, that the two men’s paths had never crossed (Sanders, 10-11).

But Wilson notes that at the time that we first encounter Saul in the book of Acts, he seems to be employed by the chief priests as some kind of a police officer. Is it too much to imagine, Wilson wonders, that he might have been in that same job a couple of years earlier, when the police force of the chief priests arrested Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, when they flogged him before handing him over to be crucified (Wilson, 54-55)?

If so, Paul’s fight is also one with his own conscience – the unflagging campaign to claim for himself the extremes of Christ’s mercy declared even from the Cross, his forgiveness even for one who participated in his crucifixion. It might explain why the man was so driven, throughout his biblical career, to fight for the gospel of Christ’s salvation, the redemption of the Cross, the reality of Resurrection.

We know so little about Paul’s real life and inner workings. We have only hints, letters to communities we cannot see, reports from journeys we can barely imagine. But his experience of grace, of conviction, conversion, repentance, reassurance; his lifelong fight to embrace the grace offered to him even on the road to Damascus – that is a story we can understand.

We don’t want to fight. We know that we are as divided now as the world through which Paul travelled. On the anniversary of the murders at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, we continue to reckon with the inheritance of anti-Semitism, which would make no sense to Jesus or to Paul, but which is perhaps our very Christian original sin. We continue to use “Pharisee” as a curse word, while Paul was proud of rabbinical education, his background immersion in the timeless stories of God’s covenant with God’s people. We are suspicious of unexpected friendships. We have forgotten how to love our enemies.

But if we take Paul’s model for the “good fight,” we find one rooted in love; one that involves repentance; that lets go of success or worldly outcomes in the service of love; but that persists, “sticking to its guns” (strictly metaphorically speaking) in the face of injustice; one that stands strongly in defence of those outside of the camp; one that involves personal investment and self-sacrifice, as all good fights must. We are encouraged not to be afraid to take on the unwinnable battles.

If we learn anything from the ends of Jesus’ and Paul’s lives, it is that we are always to be defeated by the abiding and abounding mercy of God, which the empire still fails to recognize, which the world still fails to reward.

We each have a holy war inside us. It reflects the hope and the struggle of our prayer: thy kingdom come, thy will be done. The good fight is the fight to maintain hope in the face of certain despair, and the promise of life in the face of certain death. It is the determination to do what is right at the expense of what is profitable, even when the world sees it as wrongheaded and foolish. It is an obstinate insistence on the value of forgiveness, and the staunch resistance against injustice. It is the declaration of the gospel to those who might otherwise never know that there is an alternative to the world’s win or lose strategy; because after the Cross, after the tomb, after the death even of all that is holy, in the morning, there is Resurrection.

But the good fight surrenders to the superior firepower of the Holy Spirit, the heat of love, and the overwhelming might of a peace that passes understanding, for all who rely on their own strength will be humbled, but those who humble themselves before the Prince of Peace will overcome.

May the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with us all, evermore. Amen.

E.P. Sanders, Paul: A Brief Insight (Oxford University Press, 1991)
A.N. Wilson, Paul: The Mind of the Apostle (W.W. Norton, 1997)
Featured image: Conversion of St Paul on the Road to Damascus, by Hans Speckaert [Public domain], via wikimedia commons

Posted in lectionary reflection, sermon | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

I’ll eat my words

Today, instead of writing

I consumed words like cereal,

inhaling through my ears

the opinions of the radio,

rolling words of fiction

between my teeth to see

if I could taste the lie,

drowning D. H. Lawrence in the bath.

Posted in poetry | Tagged , | Leave a comment

On the need to pray, and not to lose heart

A sermon at the Church of the Epiphany, October 20, 2019 (Year C Proper 24). The parable of the importunate widow and the unjust judge (Luke 18:1-8)

Who does the judge in the parable represent?

You’re right: it’s a trick question.

After more than two thousand years of worshipping a God whose power is love, whose example is humility, who identified with and as a zygote in order to come among us and help within our helplessness, who was condemned as a criminal and sentenced by a most unjust judge, and who didn’t lift a finger to countermand his enemies but instead subjected himself to the powers that be in order to overturn them, in order to teach evil that it will not overcome love:

After more than two thousand years of this lesson, still, when we read a parable of Jesus Christ, we often leap like lemmings to looking at the one sitting in the position of power in the parable and seek to assign to him the authority that rightly belongs only to God.

But there are red flags all over this story:

He is an unjust judge. My God, do not call our God unjust!

He has no fear of God nor respect for anyone. My God, Jesus treated even the leper with dignity, the smallest child with the greatest and most tender respect!

He grows weary, while our God neither slumbers nor sleeps, as the Psalmist says, so that the sun shall not strike you by day, nor the moon by night, for God will keep you from all evil, your going out and your coming in, from this time and for ever (Psalm 121).

Does this sound like the unjust judge of the parable?

Of course, the judge in the parable is an illustration of exactly what God is not like. God does not need our nagging to do what is just and what is right and what is merciful. God is not like a council president worn down by a succession of constituents to the point of appointing an investigation into deadly police actions.

God does not need our reminding to keep God’s covenant of steadfast love and faithfulness. God has already vindicated the widow and the orphan, the poor and the helpless, the abandoned and the lost sheep, throughout scripture, throughout the prophets, throughout the life of Jesus, who will himself appear before an unjust and unrighteous judge on the Pavement before he is crucified, a falsely accused man executed by the state for the sake of an unjust and unquiet peace.

The story does not end there.

But if the judge is more like us than like God, what about the widow? Who does she represent, in this parable about the need to pray always, and not to lose heart?

What is she petitioning for? She is not seeking a parking space or good weather nor even good health or a miracle cure. She is looking for justice.

I read a wonderful quote this week, from a very old letter by John Fischer in Harper’s magazine, which out of the blue and out of context reminded me of the determination and steely hope of Jesus’ message to his disciples, and the strong spine of the widow:

“The only corruption you really need to fear is the corruption of despair.”

The book in which I found the the letter quoted was written by one Charles E. Fager in 1967, and addressed moderate liberal critiques of the Black Power movement. It has been immensely striking, reading it today, to notice how many of the same arguments are still in currency, criticizing, for example, the Black Lives Matter movement, as being too loud, too divisive, too bold while overlooking the fact that the people involved, that the widows and the bereaved Mothers of the Movement and the orphans and the unjustly arrested are still knocking on the doors of some unjust judges, awaiting justice.

If the widow in the parable is a model of persistent justice-seeking, then we should imagine her marching the streets demanding justice for the victims of gun violence, skipping school to protest government involvement in and inaction over the climate crisis, lobbying for a living wage, and unmasking sexual abuse in the workplace and even in the churches. The widow is a woman who deserves vindication – and while God has already vindicated her in her heart, she is persistent in demanding that the world recognize her worth and her words.

She should not need to advocate for herself, if we lived in a more just world. She does it anyway, until that kingdom come.

Do not lose heart, Jesus admonishes his disciples. Keep the faith. Resurrection is coming, and the justice of God is already at work in the world, despite the unjust judges, the uncaring and corrupt forces that profit from their unequal power. They will not forever resist the importunings of God’s righteousness.

Do not lose heart, Jesus encourages. Keep the faith. Resist the “corruption of despair.”

Of course, the word “corruption” has been in the news plenty recently; but it also always reminds me of the Psalmist, quoted by Luke in the book of Acts to prove the resurrection:

“You will not abandon my soul to Hades, or let your Holy One experience [the] corruption [of the grave]” (Psalm 16:10; Acts 2:27).

I don’t know about you, but I find myself quite capable of harbouring both the widow and the unjust judge within my internal narrative. I argue with myself over how much I am responsible for the injustice of the world, where I am a victim of it and where I am complicit in it. I want to justify myself. But that is not how grace works.

My internal unjust judge has a nasty habit of looking out from her bench and assessing everyone else in sight, instead of examining her own conscience and her own unrighteousness.

Jeremiah writes, “All shall die for their own sins; the teeth of everyone who eats sour grapes shall be set on edge” (Jeremiah 31:30). Jesus says, “Judge not lest ye be judged” (Matthew 7:1).

In other words, pay attention to your own conscience before God, rather than judging anyone else’s.

My internal judge takes some wearing down. I put up defences for my actions and inactions, for my inherited and adopted attitudes, for my self-centredness and my self-protection, for my privilege. Sometimes, when I am angry beyond reason or resentful of someone whose gifts are demonstrably greater than mine, when I am careless of the needs of others, preferring to protect my own interest, I worry that the unjust judge within me will get the final word; that my heart is too hardened for change.

But the widow, in my internal narrative, is the voice of mercy, insisting on having the last word, insisting on being heard.

The unjust judge in the parable has fallen prey to despair. He no longer fears God nor cares about the opinion of anyone else. He has given up on the very idea of justice. He has given up on the hope of God’s mercy. He has compromised his own faith and the faith entrusted to him by giving in to despair. But the widow, by her very persistence, awakens at least some spark within him, some ember that turns him back, ever so slightly, towards justice. God’s justice. God’s mercy. God’s grace.

Sometimes I worry that the unjust judge within me is too far gone for mercy; but the persistence of that widow, that icon of God’s compassion and care for the world nags me back to prayer, insisting that God’s righteousness is the only kind of justice worth having; reminding me that even through death Jesus place us within reach of resurrection.

This is why it is so important for me to pray at all times, so as not to lose that heart of God that keeps insisting that justice is possible, that mercy is reasonable, that resurrection is coming. I pray, not so that I can change anyone else’s mind, let alone God’s, but so that God, by her insistence and irritating persistence can change my own heart and mind, bringing them more in alignment with the will and word of God. I pray so as not to lose heart, to hear over and over and over again that widow’s word that God’s justice is eternal, preexisting, loaded with mercy, and final.

I pray to avoid the deadly corruption of despair; remembering that every lost sheep will be found by the persistent shepherd; that God, like the widow of the parable, will not rest until I admit that there is more to God’s justice than justification, and that I am not abandoned in the corruption of my sin, but saved from despair by the grace of God.

John Fischer’s “Letter to a New Leftist, From a Tired Liberal” (Harper’s, Vol. 232, No. 1390, March 1966), is quoted in Charles E. Fager, White Reflections on Black Power (William B. Eerdmans, 1967)

Posted in current events, lectionary reflection, prayer, sermon | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

I should get out more

“Don’t you remember me?”

I needed a few things from the store for my afternoon session, and the day was long and bright, so I walked. In my collar, I notice people respond to me passing them by, for better or for worse. I smile, pass the time of day. Then someone stopped me short:

“Don’t you remember me?”

I took a second look. “I’m sorry,” I told them. “I know you look familiar, but you’ll have to remind me.”

“I stopped you in the supermarket parking lot …”

That was nearly a year ago. The weather was colder, the days shorter. There was a little rain in the air. A parishioner of mine was drawing circles on the striped lot with his bicycle, keeping an eye on our exchange until I sent him away, assuring him that all was well, that it was my habit and vocation to talk to strangers in the street. I remembered.

“How do I look to you now?” they asked me. That one was easy. “Well,” I said, “very well.”

“You saved my life,” they told me, “stopping to talk with me that day.”

I knew that they meant it kindly. I know that it’s dangerous flattery, that it taps into my temptation to hold the world together. I knew, too well, that it wasn’t true. I remembered that day. I had done nothing but stop, and pray.

But the Spirit of God, brooding from before creation, has a habit of hatching something out of nothing: like the absence of the right words on a cold day that renders each breath visible, writing on the air; like the blank space I wear around my neck, between my blood and the world.

Posted in prayer, story | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

What are we worth?

A sermon for the Church of the Epiphany, Euclid and Trinity Cathedral, Cleveland, Ohio on the Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost, 2019

What is our place in the economy of God’s grace? Are we beloved children, lost lambs, or worthless slaves? Which is it to be, Jesus?

Text is famously lacking in the ability to convey nuances of tone (although writers and poets try their best). I sometimes wonder if the red letter editions of the Bible – the ones that highlight Jesus’ words – could use an additional colour or a pull-out fancy font particularly for irony. Because I get the feeling that this hard saying of our Lord and Saviour is full of it.

I grew up, as I suspect did a number of you, saying the Prayer of Humble Access before Communion (and even before I was allowed by Confirmation to receive Communion):

We do not presume to come to this thy Table, O merciful Lord, trusting in our own righteousness, but in thy manifold and great mercies. We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under thy Table. But thou art the same Lord whose property is always to have mercy …

Soon afterwards, we responded to the invitation to draw near and receive the incalculable, indescribable grace of the sacrament of Christ’s Body and Blood with the words,

Lord, I am not worthy to receive you, but only say the word and I shall be healed.

Elsewhere, Jesus told his first disciples,

“Whoever would be first among you must be your slave; for the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Matthew 20:27-28)

There is so much work to be done, and when it is done, Jesus suggests, we should say,

“We are worthless slaves; we have done only what we ought to have done!” (Luke 17:10). 

This morning at Epiphany we wore orange stoles in lamentation and honour of the young girl who was asleep in her family home where she should have been, and where she should have been safe yesterday morning when bullets from the street invaded her bedroom. She was shot in the head and she died. Lyric Melodi (such music in her name) was six years old, and she lived and was killed three miles from our church. 

We have certainly done no more than we ought to have done to deal with the gun violence on our streets, to protect our children, the children of God. Whatever we do at this point to combat gun violence, and to get guns off our streets, is no more than our Christian duty. No matter what we do, from lamentation to consolation, from activism to serious self-examination and the rooting out of anger and violence from our own hearts and lives; no matter what we do, it is no more than Christ has ordered us to do, no more than our baptismal promises to resist evil, to strive for justice and peace among all people, to respect the life and dignity of every human being; to become slaves to the love of God and of God’s family in creation.

But, “worthless”? God has numbered every hair on every body’s head, and knows each sparrow that falls. (Matthew 10:29-30)

That sentence that I used to say before every Communion, “I am not worthy to receive you…” comes in the gospels from the mouth not of a slave but of a centurion whose servant was sick. When Jesus offered to come to his house and heal the slave, the centurion replied, “Lord, I am not worthy to have you come under my roof, but only speak the word, and my servant will be healed.” And Jesus answered him, “Go; let it be done for you according to your faith.” (Matthew 8:5-13)

The Prayer of Humble Access itself alludes to the story of the foreign woman whose daughter was sick, who begged Jesus for healing, who abased herself, arguing with him, “‘Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from the master’s table.’”  Jesus answered her, ‘Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.’” (Matthew 15:21-28)

Both instances come from petitioners who knew their dire need of mercy, who were prepared and willing and eager to humble themselves before Christ, but who also knew, or believed, or had faith that their child, their servant, their daughter, their slave was worthy of Christ’s compassion, his healing grace, his notice, and his love. They trusted in that love to overcome any unworthiness they themselves may carry.

In this vignette, this parable as it may be that we hear anew in today’s gospel, Jesus paints the picture of a landowner waiting for their meal, and the slave coming in from the fields after labouring over the stewardship of the land and its creatures. Perhaps we might call to mind the image of God in the Garden at the beginning, creating the heavens and the earth, and then setting the human to work to tend them.

If you were the landowner, then, asks Jesus, would you say to your underlings, “Come here at once and take your place at the table;” sit down, eat and drink? (Luke 17:7)

Maybe the slave has been plowing, Jesus says. Elsewhere, he has told his disciples,

Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap not gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? (Matthew 7:26)

Your heavenly father feeds the sparrows. Come, sit down, eat and drink.

Or maybe the slave was tending the sheep, Jesus says. Elsewhere, he has told his disciples,

What do you think? If a shepherd has a hundred sheep, and one of them has gone astray, does he not leave the ninety-nine on the mountains and go in search of the one that went astray?  (Matthew 18:12)

And elsewhere he exclaimed, How much more valuable is a human being than a sheep! (Matthew 12:12)

And what’s more,

“When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd,” (Matthew 9:36)

and he told the crowds with a claim upon his compassion to sit down upon the grass, and he fed them on bread and fish until they had their fill. (Matthew 14:13-21 and elsewhere)

There is nothing we can do to earn our worth in the economy of God’s grace. It is too much. We can work our whole lives toward the gospel, plowing the fields, sowing them with justice and mercy as we are able, labouring toward the harvest, tending the sheep and the little lambs, even the sparrows with as much loving care as we can muster, and we will only ever have done what we already owe to God and to Christ and to one another. There is nothing we can give or give up or create to compensate Christ for his sacrifice, the offering up of his body and spirit for us and for our salvation. We are unworthy.

And yet time and again he comes to us in our weariness and our worthlessness and our work and our worship and he upends the heavens and the earth, inviting us to his table, serving us with his Body and Blood, feeding us with his mercy and the kind of justice that makes no sense in this world.

Here’s the dripping irony of Jesus’ words to his disciples,  to us. 

“Who among you” [asks Jesus] “would say to your slave who has just come in from plowing or tending sheep in the field, ‘Come here at once and take your place at the table’?” 

But the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.

And on the night before he died, having loved his own who were in the world – he loved them to the end – Jesus got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples feet and to wipe them with the towel that was tied around him (John 13:1-5), and afterwards he told them,

“You are my friends if you do what I command you. I do not call you slaves any longer … but I have called you friends.” (John 15:14-15)

“Come here at once, and take your place at the table.” 

This post has been updated to correct the spelling of Lyric Melodi Lawson’s name.

Posted in current events, Gun control, gun safety, lectionary reflection, sermon | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

To move mountains

When she was old and fading –

her gray hair paling,

her skin thinning and softening –

my grandmother painted watercolours.

A mustard seed of memory

shuttled yellow clouds across canvas,

stilled storms, swept the earth into peaks:

with her paintbrush, she moved mountains.

From this Sunday’s gospel (Luke 17:5-10):

The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!” The Lord replied, “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, `Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.

On the way home I heard a piece on NPR about the late artist and personality, Bob Ross. A participant in a Bob Ross Certified Instructor’s painting class, Susan Rossi, told how Bob Ross’s painting opened up a world of possibilities for her after a stroke changed her life:

You think, wow, no limits. You can move clouds, you can change mountains …

I received the sudden (and not altogether mountain-shattering) revelation that mustard-seed faith is really in league with breadcrumb imagination to re-create the kingdom of heaven …

Posted in lectionary reflection, poetry, sermon preparation, story | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment