Are we there yet?

A sermon for Palm Sunday at the Church of the Epiphany, Euclid, after another week of back-to-back mass shootings in America


Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion!
Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem!
Lo, your king comes to you,
triumphant and victorious is he,
humble and riding on a donkey,
on a colt, the foal of a donkey.
He will cut off the chariot from Ephraim
and the war-horse from Jerusalem;
and the battle bow shall be cut off,
and he shall command peace to the nations;
his dominion shall be from sea to sea,
and from the River to the ends of the earth. (Zechariah 9:9-10)

Someone said on Twitter this week that the United States seems to believe in human sacrifice. They were talking about the back-to-back mass shootings that have upset our news feeds in the past couple of weeks; or maybe about the report that while we were spared such coverage during a year of pandemic crisis, our gun violence did not, in fact, take a break. Instead, gun-related deaths and murders rose by record rates.

Are all those deaths defended by my right to bear arms? Is their sacrifice worth it? 

Jesus rode into town on a donkey, the foal of a donkey, a joke of a mount for a king, for a messiah. He did not ride in on a fine Arab war-horse, hatted and holstered up, ready for justice like the hero of an old western movie. He was not aggressive. He was not arrogant. He was not armed. 

The people were delighted. They hailed him as their saviour: “Hosanna!”

But the systems of oppression and suppression were not ready for the Prince of Peace. The machinery of violence and the machinations of power were too strong, too embedded for this uprising of nonviolence to take over the city, or the empire, in the moment. We know how it ended.

Are we ready yet to try another way?

Every year we tell this story, and we tell it as though we are sure that if we were in the crowd, we would be crying out “Hosanna!” rather than “Crucify!” 

But unless and until we are ready to lay down not only the palm branches and coats before his feet, but to lay down our weapons to be trampled in the dust, then, my friends, we are blowing smoke.

Violence feeds on all sorts of sin. We have seen it fuelled by racism, misogyny, the supremacy of self.

Jesus has shown us the way of the Cross, the way that elevates love over all other claims upon our humanity. And yes, he died for it. But his death brought forth resurrection, and life.

There is nothing in Christ’s story that would justify our sacrifice of children, women, grocery shoppers, police officers, and passers by to defend our right to reserve weapons of violence to ourselves. On the contrary, the resurrection is God’s ultimate judgement on the violence that nailed Jesus to the cross. The resurrection is God’s utter negation and reversal of all that would kill the beloved.

Rejoice; … your king comes to you,
triumphant and victorious is he,
humble and riding …
on a colt, the foal of a donkey….
and the battle bow shall be cut off,
and he shall command peace to the nations.

He shall command peace. And what will be our cry?

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Holy Saturday

Sealed
in a tomb innocent
of inscription, the stone
worn smooth by centuries
of rain, the tears of heaven shed
for this, the day of dereliction,

God’s
Christ is dead;
his body, unanointed, plumbs
the depths of human dissipation,
And will he find me there,*
buried in my own mortality?

*or,
And will I find him there,

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Hear my prayer

Crocuses purple the lawn in Lenten array.
Surrounded by dead, dry leaves of last year, they
insist upon spring, despite the morning frost.
My prayer is ice –
How long, O Lord?

The days become lighter,
but the news grows heavy;
my morning prayer, sunlit, turns
to fire and ashes on my lips –
My God, my God.

The lake has melted. Sand and shale
strewn by the winter floes litter the beach.
I pick out the pebbles that hint at a heart
of stone. My prayers are rocks
thrown heavenward;

yet, he said one day,
picking his way over cobbles and coats,
palm branches on a colt, “If these
were silent, the stones would shout out,”
as though he who had heard the rubble
would hear me, after all.


This poem first appeared at The Episcopal Cafe

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Bronze serpents and steel needles

A sermon for the Fourth Sunday in Lent from the Church of the Epiphany, Euclid


The process of healing the Israelites from their snakebites sounds awfully familiar these days. In order to counter the poison that was killing them, they had to engage with it directly, to look it in the eyes, to stare it down. And Jesus talked about bringing evil into the light, to expose it to the righteousness of God, the compassionate and perfect judgement of God, who sent his Son not to condemn the people, poisoned by sin and kicking at serpents, but to save them.

There are so many allegories we could wrestle from the story of the bronze serpent, including our need to stare down racism and white supremacy, to bring into the light the continuing misogyny, harassment, and gender-based violence that runs rampant around us. 

Then, too, the process of producing anti-venom for a poisonous snake bite includes coming to terms with the original biter, taking its venom and teaching a body to produce its own antidote, antibodies to fight the poison. It may remind us of the process to make a vaccine: teaching a person’s immune system to recognize and resist the particular poison of a new virus. Researchers and developers have spent long hours staring down the coronavirus that has killed millions around the world over the past year, and upended life as we knew it almost everywhere. They stared it down, and crafted the equivalent of a bronze serpent, so that the people who are exposed to a pandemic virus might look upon its steel needle-tooth, and live.

This past week, our youngest daughter signed my husband and me up for shots next weekend at the new mass distribution centre in Cleveland. I am excited to get stabbed in the arm. I am grateful for the hair of the dog, the anti-venom, the vaccine developed by agents of mercy, and tested on angels of courage and hope (I met someone recently who participated in the trials). I am discouraged by the messaging of some religious leaders who stand between the people and the serpent of bronze, and seem to be trying to persuade them to look away from certain vaccines, not for reasons of efficacy, safety, or communal health, but for reasons of personal moral purity. 

Just in case you have heard those messages and are concerned, I would like to assure you that there is no conflict that I can see for a Christian receiving any kind of vaccine. 

I find no issue of moral purity here. For one thing, generations have passed in the laboratory between stem cells used for research today and any cells derived from a donor decades ago. They are not from the same body. They are a bronze serpent made in its image.

For another, it is the work and will of God to wrestle life even out of death. Personally, I have heard the stories of too many people who have terminated or been advised to terminate pregnancies for too many different reasons to render any sort of judgement over the decisions that led to the donation of foetal cells to research more than thirty years ago. And we do not know the stories of the genetic ancestors of the cells used in research and development today. We do know that it is God who is able to wrestle life out of death. The scientists working with the genetic lines descended from donors to heal the sick and spare the suffering are doing the work of mercy.

In fact, with respect to my brothers in Christ, I find the moral purity argument to be a shame, and a betrayal of the love we should have for God and for our neighbours. Jesus himself found it more important to heal the person suffering in front of him than to maintain his personal purity with regard to the Sabbath, on more than one occasion. If we follow his example, we will do what we can to protect and promote the health of those around us, since we are all suffering under this pandemic.

A moral use of the vaccine, then, might be to receive it thankfully; to share it, helping others to access appointments; and to lobby for equitable distribution locally, nationally, and globally, for the sake of mercy.

I don’t know which vaccine we will get next weekend, but I will take whichever is offered, since that is what gets us closer to community immunity, and personally speaking, closer to getting back together with y’all. 

The people found their way into the snake-infested territory through impatience, selfish grumbling, ingratitude against God, and concern each for their own comfort over the salvation of the whole people from slavery. As long as each person sat in their own poison, death pursued them. But when they looked to the sign that God had given them of hope and of mercy, they were made better, and not only as individuals, but the community recovered, and they were able to move on from that place.

They were able to move on.

We are encouraged for our own safety to get vaccinated, to look upon the needle of steel and live; we also do it for the sake of the whole community, to pull our community, our county, our country, the world out of the pit of a pandemic, to restore some of the life that we have missed this past year; in too many cases, to make a new life out of grief; so that we, too, can move on.

Jesus said, “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. …Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” (John 3:14-15,17)

Amen.

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“A sin of fear”

A sermon for the Third Sunday in Lent at the Church of the Epiphany, inspired by John Donne. Our little recording of the hymn is on YouTube.


I fell in love with John Donne when I was nearly a teenager. He had been dead several centuries by then, but no matter. His words were timeless. We sang a poem of his this morning, A Hymn to God the Father.[i]

Before he was chaplain to the king and the Dean of St Paul’s Cathedral, Donne had a past. He went into law first rather than the church, and he was known around London for his womanizing rather than his piety. He went to be a soldier for a time. When he fell in love finally and married, when he became a parent, and a bereaved father, and was widowed, he began to think on different themes than he had in his earlier, more licentious life.[ii] He contemplated his mortality, and that of those whom he loved, and perhaps it was through them that he found God.

Before he was ordained, Donne wondered whether it was such a good idea, given his past, and his well-published sins. Yet the faith that he had found was in a God whose forgiveness outstripped any error that Donne had made, and he was persuaded to share his discovery, his uncovering of that grace, that love, not only through his poetry but from the pulpit.

Today’s hymn describes in a tightly compressed form that journey of the body and spirit from reprobate to repentant and grateful sinner.

In the final verse, Donne writes, “I have a sin of fear that when I’ve spun my last thread, I shall perish on the shore.”[iii]

He identifies his fear of being left behind by God as a sin – Donne knows the stories of the lost sheep and the persistent shepherd. He knows Jesus’ promise to the bandit on the cross beside him, that he would see paradise soon. Like the worried father in another gospel story, Donne’s prayer is, “Lord, I believe; help thou mine unbelief!” (Mark 9:24, KJV). 

“The cross,” writes Paul, “is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are saved it is the power of God” (1 Corinthians 1:18). 

The blessing of the bandit, the welcome into paradise of the sinner, the profligate and promiscuous forgiveness that God hands out is an outrage to our fallen sense of injustice, our punitive sense of fair play. Yet it is, too, our only hope, knowing, as we do all too well, our own pasts, presents, and even some of our future sins. As Donne once preached, “I know nothing, if I know not Christ crucified, And I know not that, if I know not how to apply him to my selfe.”[iv]

But this Christ is not a hope only for the future, or for that other shore. He is a very present help in times of trouble, and he helps us to turn the tables on our sin of fear and embrace grace.

Sin is often defined as anything that separates us from the love of God. Identifying his fear of rejection, of condemnation, his fear of hell as a sin, Donne recognized that it threatened to keep him from the full embrace of that foolish and fond grace that Christ had mediated to him.

Fear of our own condemnation is what leads us so often to condemn others. Fear of missing out makes us grasping and fetters our generosity of spirit. We covet what is our neighbour’s instead of making sure that they have enough to get by. Fear of rejection leads us to scapegoat, separate, scorn those whom Christ would welcome from the cross into paradise. Fear makes thieves of our prayers. We seek to secure to ourselves the blessings that God would share with the whole of creation.

We can repent even of this fear; not because it would keep us from heaven, but because here and now, God calls us to love our neighbours, to keep the commandments not as a duty but for the joy of embracing God’s will.

Again, I borrow from Donne, who prayed,

Forgive me O Lord, O Lord in the merits of thy Christ and my Jesus, thine Anointed, and my Saviour; Forgive me my sinnes, all my sinnes, and I will put Christ to no more cost, nor thee to more trouble … I ask but an application, not an extention of that Benediction, Blessed are they whose sinnes are forgiven; Let me be but so blessed, and I shall envy no mans Blessednesse.[v]

When we turn the tables, doing justice, promoting and provoking mercy, zealously and foolishly following Jesus, even when all seems lost and to lead only to the cross; when we embrace the grace of God not for ourselves but for its own sake – because it is beautiful, because it is gracious, because it is foolish, because it is hopeful – then we will find our sin of fear, and our fear of sin, wiped clean. 

Donne’s conversion didn’t only save his eternal life. It changed his life in the here and now, or at least in the there and then. Acting on his understanding of God’s grace, he amended his own life and reached out to others in prayer and compassion, preaching redemption, knowing well his own foolishness, and trusting instead in the wisdom, the love, the inexhaustible goodness of God, writing out his prayers and living them with his body:

“Lord, I believe: help thou mine unbelief.”

And having done that, thou hast done; I fear no more.


[i] John Donne, A Hymn to God the Father/Wilt Thou Forgive That Sin, Where I Begun,https://hymnary.org/text/wilt_thou_forgive_that_sin_where_i_begun/fulltexts

[ii] For more biographical details, see Richard Schmidt, Glorious Companions: Five Centuries of Anglican Spirituality (Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2002), 47-51

[iii] Donne, op. cit.

[iv] John Donne, Sermons on the Psalms and Gospels with a Selection of Prayers and Meditations, edited by Evelyn M. Simpson (University of California Press, 1963), 53

[v] Ibid., 242-243

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On being lost

Today’s Speaking to the Soul at the Episcopal Cafe draws upon my word to the parish for March, as well as a much older memory of being (almost) lost in the wilderness


Once, we thought we were lost for real.

It had been a long day and night of travel. We disembarked our train too early for dawn, on a concrete platform barely long enough to hold half the carriages, in a place we had never heard of. But we were not lost. The appointed people met us and took us to a large room to sleep until daybreak.

We sprawled into longtail boats for the hours-long journey up-river. On a bend in the bank I saw a monitor lizard that I swear was as large as the Komodo dragons at the zoo. We arrived at last, late in the afternoon, unpacked the children and checked into our cabin in the Malaysian rainforest. We thought we would take a quick walk before dark.

The signs said that it should take us about half an hour to loop through the encroaching forest and back. They were not entirely accurate. After well over an hour, with the canopy darkening and the narrow path dimming into that grainy soft focus that comes with the dusk, we were afraid that we might, in fact, be lost in the jungle, reputed still to harbour the occasional tiger, and definitely full of scorpions, spiders, and large and small lizards, along with our baby, toddler, and child. It was too late to turn back; the darkness would be upon us within minutes.

We were not lost. The signs at the start of the trail were misleading; the loop was approximately three times longer than advertised, but it did lead us back to the opening and the paved path, our cabin and our friends next door.

I wrote to my parish for the beginning of March that we have been a year now in the wilderness of pandemic life. When first we closed our doors and retreated online last March, we had no idea how long this journey would be. We are not at the end of it yet, nor can we turn back, but we are not lost.

I wrote, “We can bear the wilderness a little longer, if staying here means that we are learning to love God and one another in new ways. We can bear it, knowing that God is with us, as God was with the people when they complained and cried out in the desert, and received manna to eat and water from the rock to drink. God is with us, even in the wilderness. Perhaps, especially in the wilderness.”

We can bear it, especially, if we know that we are not lost, if we

believe that [we] shall see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living.
Wait for the Lord; be strong, and let your heart take courage;
wait for the Lord! (Psalm 27:13-14)

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Less than forty years

I wrote this to my parish in our March newsletter at the end of last week, one year after last year’s longest Lent began.


Last March was our transition to the wilderness of pandemic life. On March 1, we entered into the First Sunday in Lent. On March 8, the Bishop visited our parish. By March 15, the last time we gathered for worship in the Nave as usual, the mood was sombre as we shared Communion in one kind only, and broadcast the service to those already sheltering in place. On March 22, we had our first Zoom service from the Chapel. By March 29, we were under a statewide stay-at-home order, and we shared Morning Prayer from our homes.

Since we became aware of this pandemic disease a year ago, more than 500,000 people have died from COVID-19 in the US alone, 100,000 of them in just the past month. We are not yet out of the wilderness.

During Lent, we read of God’s successive covenants with God’s people. We read of their wanderings through the wilderness of flood plain and desert, exile and exodus, displacement and occupation and the hope, always, of return, of resurrection.

We have been in this wilderness for a year now. It will not take us 40 years to reach its far side, but it will remain a part of our faith story, shaping our lament and our hope for years to come. It has physically altered our prayers and our liturgy. It has called us, like Noah, like Abraham, like Moses, into new ways of being and new understandings of God’s presence with us.

Half a million people is a lot of grief to bear. Their weight should slow us down, our footsteps should falter rather than rush toward false hope: a golden calf, an idol of our own making.

We can bear the wilderness a little longer, if staying here means that we are learning to love God and one another in new ways. We can bear it, knowing that God is with us, as God was with the people when they complained and cried out in the desert, and received manna to eat and water from the rock to drink. God is with us, even in the wilderness. Perhaps, especially in the wilderness.

The hope of return and resurrection sustains us, but it is not all that gives us life in the wilderness. The knowledge that God is with us in lament, is with us in hope, is with us in the waiting, the lost days, the wandering and wondering of the wilderness, even the emptiness of Holy Saturday: that is our faith, our rock, the covenant of our salvation.

I believe that I shall see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living.
Wait for the Lord; be strong, and let your heart take courage;
wait for the Lord! (Psalm 27:13-14)


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Ash Wednesday comes around again

Ashes line the grate
after the great snow storm.
Chill strikes down the chimney;
a ghost stepping over the grave
of last night’s fire.
Ashes lift and shiver,
settle and sigh, whisper
to the warm wood tales of passion;
eagerly, we consume their heat,
lying in the dust,
brushing away reminders
of how it always ends
until tomorrow’s embers,
spent, draw us back
to kneel among the ashes
with dustpan and brush
and the unclean slate

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A prayer for a bad day

(Save it for when you need it. May you never need it.)

This post first appeared at the Episcopal Cafe, Speaking to the Soul, on February 10, 2021


There are days that will not let go.
They drag at you like a bramble.
Whether with the weariness of worry,
or of sickness, or decay,
they etch themselves inside the bones,
an internal calendar of dismay.
They make mockery, singing off-key:
This is the day that the Lord has made …

This is the day that the Lord has made,
and in the beginning each was given its bounds:
there was evening, and there was morning,
none allowed to stay for ever.
This is the day, fleeting like a breath,
a long-drawn sigh, mortal like us;
may we find compassion for its brevity,
love it like an enemy, pray for it as a persecutor.

This is the day that the Lord has made.
May God give it only the measure that it deserves.

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red white and blue

Content warning for fear of gun violence at a school


sirens stretch the air like an old jazz horn

lights the color of a fresh wound

pause

snow around the school drive pounded

into ice by parents pacing out their prayers 

as once they cradled newborns refusing to fall asleep

feet stamping out the new national ritual

of waiting for news;

all I can offer is

Christ, have mercy

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