Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Prayer 1740: Inspired by the Parable of the Sower

You call us to wakefulness, O God,
our Ground and Stronghold:
may we follow your ways,
rejoicing in your mercy.

May we open the eyes of our hearts
to see that we dwell in the presence of the sacred,
for the living Earth sings your praise!
Sow within our hearts, Lord Christ,
the seeds of tranquility and holy action,
grounded in justice and loving-kindness.
Turn the desert places in our hearts
to springs of clear, cool water, O Holy One,
that your mercy may flourish within us.

Let us seek understanding among us;
may our companionship be steadfast and true,
guided by God's grace and love.
Grant, O Lord, your aid to those who call upon You,
and bless those for whom we pray.


(Photo: detail of Martin Luther from a window in the McCarthy Room at Eden Theological Seminary, Webster Groves, MO)

Monday, October 30, 2017

Prayer 1739: in the way of grace and hope

Beloved Savior,
rest your hand of blessing upon us today,
and lead us in the way of grace and hope.

Help us join in the wonder and awe
of the trill of the sparrow at dawn
as she sings her praises to You, O Creator.

Give us gentle hands, Lord Christ,
as we reach out to each other,
and tend to the delicate work
of reconciliation and healing.

Help us to leap free
from the gravity of resentment
and the weight of pride
to stand upright and joyful before You, O God.

Give us rest at day's end, O Spirit,
and guard us as we sleep,
that as we surface between dreams,
we sigh our thanks and dive deep again.

Gather into Your embrace
all your children, and bless them,
cradling those whose cares and hopes
we lay before You.


Sunday, October 29, 2017

The Law of Love: Sermon for Proper 25A, the 21st Sunday After Pentecost


I was a teacher for 27 years. For the first fifteen years of my teaching career, I taught middle school English, reading, and world history. Now, usually when I say that, people have one of two reactions, or a combination of them both—they either draw back in horror, or they think I am a bit nuts, especially when I tell them I LOVED those kids in all their adolescent angst and craziness. I loved that so many of them were still wide open to the world, and I ached for those who had already started to close themselves off from the world.

It could get hard at time, though, especially when they would schlump over their desks during a lesson and dramatically moan, “Will this be on the test??? Do we hafta write this all doooooowwwwwwnnnn???” Real learning and growth is hard, and some kids just wanted the study guide, something like Cliff’s notes, rather than to have to learn the whole thing. And there’s real value in being able to understand and articulate the underlying principles behind what we are learning, as well as the specifics.
So we did both. Ha ha ha ha.

Once, in a discussion on early law codes, I had a student ask me how many laws there were in the state of Missouri. There may be someone out there that knows the answer to that, but it’s not me. So I did a little searching, and DID find a spreadsheet with all the numerical charge codes used by the Missouri State Highway Patrol. I thought, “How bad can this be?”

We quickly found out. And just to make sure I was remembering it correctly, I went back and looked this week. Friends, let me tell you, if you were to go and look, you would find that there are, currently, 2,215 different codes used to differentiate between 2,215 different offenses that the Highway Patrol might cite someone for violating, and they include just about what you’d expect—different kinds of theft, assault, murder and other really appalling crimes are all there. But there’s more! These codes also include things such as “Parasailing violation without observer between sunset and sunrise,” “altering lottery tickets,” and even “administering unauthorized drugs to a horse.” There’s even a violation code specifically about beer bongs being prohibited on or near certain rivers.

That’s a LOT of laws. And that’s only the ones that the Highway Patrol here in Missouri may need to enforce.

I don’t know how anyone would ever know them all. I do know that I have a great deal of respect for whoever made that spreadsheet.

Any time people live together in community, they require expectations outlining their common life together. When the group is small, there are probably only a few laws that are needed. As the group gets larger and more diverse, however, what usually happens is that the number and specificity of laws has to increase, as well.

It was the same thing in Jesus’s time. The Jews were known as being people of The Law, going all the way back to Moses, the greatest prophet, who also was the supposed author of the Torah. Ever since August 27, we have been hearing the story of Moses. Today’s reading ends with Moses’s death, and thus the end of the Torah. Another name for the Torah, of course, is “the Law.”

One of the biggest accomplishments within the Torah was the enshrinement of what ended up being 613 separate laws to govern how the people of Israel were to worship God and live with each other. Now, 613 is easier to remember than 2,215—but not much better. So the rabbis and the lawyers were always trying to find some way of summarizing the laws so that, for everyday use, there would be some broad general principles that COULD be easily remembered, especially for the common folk who couldn’t sit around all day studying the law the way the rabbis and lawyers did. Especially given that most people could not read or write.

The rabbis argued about what was the minimum number of principles that provided the foundation for those laws. And what was the greatest law of them all? This was the question Jesus gets asked by a lawyer. Now, since Jesus is also someone who has just spent several weeks defending his authority to act in ways that sometimes seemed to violate some of those laws, it’s clear that this question also contains a trap.

In other words, just like my students throughout my career, the lawyer asks Jesus for the Cliff’s Notes version of the commandments, and hopes Jesus’s answer will make it easier for the people he sides with, the religious and secular authorities of Israel, to prosecute Jesus for violating the law, which is what THEY believe he has been doing.

There had been other attempts to make summarize them even further. The prophet Micah had boiled down the law into three things, which we actually just sang in the hymn before the gospel. Hymn 605 quoted Micah 6:8, which is one of MY favorite summaries because it is written in action form:
“God has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you?
But to do justice,
And to love kindness,
And to walk humbly with your God.”

So here in Matthew’s gospel, we have this lawyer asking Jesus what the GREATEST commandment is—and once again, Jesus shakes up the rules. He gives TWO answers. First he cites a commandment every good Jew would know, because they recited in two times a day at morning and at evening: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” And then, without pausing for breath, he goes on: “Also, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”

As Jesus repeatedly emphasizes throughout the Gospels, the point of the Law was not to follow every literal word and comma, but to understand that the Law was, at its base, about relationships. The rules in the Ten Commandments had two kinds of orientations: the first four were about one’s relationship with God, and the last six were about one’s relationship with others.

Jesus repeatedly emphasizes that everything in the Law and Prophets is meant to create a community in which justice and peace prevail—what we would call the “kingdom of heaven” in Matthew’s terminology. The heart of God’s kingdom on earth and in our hearts, which was considered to be the seat of a person’s will, is LOVE. That is what makes Jesus’s message so compelling, then and now. And Jesus was talking about a specific kind of love for which we lack a perfect word. The word in Greek was agape, which isn’t based on romance or fleeting desire but about an outward orientation of compassion and enacting shalom—wholeness, contentment, wellness as well as peace—for the sake of others.

The kind of love Jesus is talking about is the glue that holds communities together. It seeks to overcome divisions. This kind of love, not romantic love, is the subject of Paul’s famous celebration of love in 1 Corinthians 13, no matter how many times it gets recited at weddings—it is, as Paul puts it, patient, kind, not boastful or arrogant or rude. It is flexible and giving instead of insisting on getting its own way, and doesn’t take pleasure in the pain, suffering, or bad behavior of others. It is an action not an emotion—for it bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, and endures all things. It is the stuff of eternity, for it never ends. It is the love that we encounter in Jesus—and which Jesus calls us to embody in word and truth. It’s an abundant love, draped in mercy and healing, that seeks to build up.

It is not the kind of love you are helpless against—just the opposite. That might be why it is sometimes in such short supply, even in our Christian communities. The paucity of the English language in being able to articulate this kind of love might be somewhat to blame—after all, the words we have or don’t have shape how we think. Yet that’s not the whole story. Our entire culture tries to convince us that love shouldn’t be hard work for us fallible humans. The mere fact that Jesus has to keep telling us to do it tells us that it IS. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t also beautiful and wondrous—and we experience it when we still our hearts and souls so that we can hear and know God’s presence in our lives. It’s the kind of love that sings out, wonderingly, about amazing grace—both given AND received. And we are blessed and called to be vessels of that grace!

This love to which we are called is a lasting love grounded in joy and wonder—that helps us hear the praise of God in a baby’s cry and a bird’s song as it takes to the sky. This kind of love helps us see the beauty that surrounds us that God has placed in each other and the world around us. This is a lasting love that does not wax and wane with the seasons but endures all things BECAUSE it sees with eyes of compassion and hope.

This love is a conscious decision we make each day as disciples of Jesus in our mind as well as our hearts to love our neighbors, especially those who are different from us—God’s image is embedded in everyone. It is the love we practice as we draw together in the Eucharist every time we celebrate it alongside saints and all the company of heaven. This love is as countercultural as anything can be, because it doesn’t seek to sort people into winners and losers but seeks the welfare and repair of the world. It calls us to give of ourselves for the good of the community in a way that is deliberate and open-hearted.

So where do we begin? One tangible way to step toward this kind of love is by practicing justice for others—to stand alongside those who are often denigrated or seen as “less than” in our society, and to treat them as we ourselves would wish to be treated.

It can even be simpler than that. It’s the kind of love that calls us to reconsider the kind of off-hand cutting remarks that are poisonous to communities. It’s about giving people the benefit of the doubt and offering the grace we would want to receive when people aren’t being their best selves. We can acknowledge our own woundedness, and  instead try to see the pain behind others’ actions, rather than lash out ourselves.

This love is about turning aside a harsh word with a word of compassion. It’s about letting go of the resentments of the past that threaten to drag us under and instead trying to find it within ourselves to break the cycle of retribution that wounds us as much as others.

This is the kind of love we see Jesus exemplifying not just for our benefit but as our template. And when we ask how much love we are called to give, he answers us as in John 13:34: “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.” And that’s a LOT of love.

It’s the kind of love that calls us joyfully into the fields of the Lord, where we dedicate our time, talent, and treasure to the building up of the abundant harvest of this community, which is what true stewardship is about.

We cannot build our happiness by inflicting pain or vengeance, or even deliberate carelessness, on others. And the amazing thing that we learn by embracing this path of discipleship is that in seeing through eyes of compassion and mercy, we stop the cycle of injury and move toward wholeness and contentment in a way that vengeance and pettiness will never accomplish.

The 20th century saint, humanitarian, social justice activist, and devout Catholic Dorothy Day loved the poor and oppressed that she worked alongside so much that she inspired countless others to follow in her footsteps. She noted, “Love and ever more love is the only solution to every problem that comes up. If we love each other enough, we will bear with each others’ faults and burdens. If we love enough, we are going to light that fire in the hearts of others… It is love that will make us want to do great things for each other.”

This is love that doesn’t end in gratitude, but instead starts with gratitude and open-hearted generosity. It is love that can change the world one community at a time. Starting with each one of us, seeking to do justice,
and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with our God every moment.

For this Love the most powerful force in the world.

Love that conquered death, rolled back the stone of oppression, injustice, and violence to bring us to new life and new hope in our risen, living Savior.

Love that knocks at the doors of our hearts and asks to be allowed in. 

Love that is based on real peace and abundance for all.

Love that calls us to act to heal our world in place of the violence that continues to wound it.

Let’s step forward in faith and hope, seeking to embody the only law that matters-- the Law of Love.

(Preached at Christ Church Cathedral, 8:00 and 10:00 am, on October 29, 2017.)

Prayer, day 1738: Twnty-first Sunday After Pentecost

O God, our help and our rock,
we join in creation's morning hymn of praise
and offer you our hearts: hear our prayer.
Teach us to love as You love, O Holy One,
who forgives all our sin,
and whose mercy endures forever.
Teach us to love even those who oppose us,
and pray for those who hurt us,
that their hearts
and ours
may be turned to amity.
Lead us to do good for the sake of good,
as a testimony to your truth, Lord Christ.
Plant our feet in the way of justice and mercy,
upholding each other in love in your Holy Name.
Spirit of God, breathe your love into us,
and shelter those we lift before You in hope.


Saturday, October 28, 2017

Prayer 1737: the stars sing God's praise

I will praise You, O God, with my first thought
as morning joy bids me to rise.
The stars sing out your praises;
their song resonates
even beyond the blue veil of day.
Your love is the foundation of the earth;
all creation rests within your embrace, O Steadfast One.

Our longing hearts turn to You:
Your Word is a lamp for our feet,
showing us the way home,
the way of peace and justice.

We thirst for your wisdom, O Redeemer:
pour out your Spirit within us,
heal and refresh us by your grace.

Let us answer your harvest call, Lord Christ,
and like workers at the harvest 
ear your abundant peace into the hungry world.

May the mantle of your goodness envelop us,
O Holy One,
and all those for whom we pray.


Photo of the Milky Way Galaxy from the Black Rock Desert in Nevada by Steve Jurvetson via Wikipedia.

Friday, October 27, 2017

Prayer 1736

Blessed Savior,
abide within our hearts this day.
For your Name's sake,
lead us in paths of righteousness and mercy.
Make us humble in our thoughts,
gentle in our words,
and loving in our actions.
Give us hands that heal
and hearts that comfort
as we seek to embody your gospel.
May the twin lights of reconciliation and compassion
illuminate our path today
and bring comfort to the anxious.
May the Spirit of Hope
anoint the brow
of those who weep or worry,
and give them rest and peace.


Thursday, October 26, 2017

Prayer, day 1735

Great is our God, and greatly to be praised: 
God's mercy is everlasting! 

You welcome us into Your embrace, O God, 
and there we take our rest and find new strength.

You number the stars and comfort our sorrows,
knowing us all by name.

You teach the sparrow its song and fill our hearts with thanksgiving;
all creation sings its praise of Your goodness.

Let us abide with You in this moment, O Loving One:
Your love envelops us now and forever.



Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Numbering Our Days: Speaking to the Soul, October 25, 2017

Lord, you have been our refuge
from one generation to another.
Before the mountains were brought forth,
or the land and the earth were born,
from age to age you are God.
--Psalm 90:1-2

Here as our church year winds toward its last month, this Sunday we will be treated to Psalm 90, which was traditionally attributed to Moses as a prayer and meditation as he faced the end of his days. Although our reading from Deuteronomy will remind us that in all of time there was no one like Moses, still at the end of his life this psalm depicts Moses as praising God even through the memories of adversities and afflictions to which no one is immune, even the greatest prophet to ever live.

Even in my everyday life, as the autumn days grow shorter, and yet there is so much to cram into each hour. The busy days flow past, one after the other, each one full, yet telescoping away from me I cannot remember when I did what. Yet when I feel breathless and overwhelmed, the psalmist who composed Psalm 90 has provided me a little reminder right at the start that each day is not ours but a gift from God, who is and was and shall be.

Now is the time some of us need that reminder. The sky overhead just this week has turned leaden, and chill winds send yellow leaves swirling down gravity’s well as if possessed of a mind of their own. Summer will not endure forever, as much as the Midwestern weather tries to convince us otherwise, with spikes of heat lingering well into October this year. Overnight, it seems, those leaves changed from a dull green to a mustard yellow and they remind us of how soon things can change.

Yet Lord, You have been and will be our refuge, from time before our birth. When we need respite from the thoughts that swirl like leaves through the doorway of our minds, You are with us, and the gentle pressure of your hand upon us bids us to be still and quiet. Yes, each moment is fleeting, but it is part of the tapestry into which all our lives are woven. My dear friend and mentor Clint McCann reminded me once that Isaac Watts’s version of Psalm 90 sings out the assurance and trust that we can take from this knowledge of God’s promises fulfilled:

O God, our help in ages past,
Our hope for years to come,
Our shelter from the stormy blast,
And our eternal home….

Even Psalm 90’s reminder that we are dust, and to dust we shall return, is also at the same time a precious remembrance of our unity with all creation. We are made of dust and water—the warm seas of creation roll through our veins. Flesh and bones are made from the same stuff as the stars—and the same as the solid rock that provides the foundations of the world. As songwriter Beth Nielsen Chapman sings, “Solid stone is just sand and water, baby—sand and water, and a million years gone by.” So leaf subsides to leaf, in the image I recall from a snippet of a poem by Robert Frost. In the end, all things subside into one, and yet even the stones sing out with the glory of God who shapes them and us with the same sustaining hand. Each numbered day we receive is a holy day, as long as we remember that all is a gift from God.

Psalm 90 recognizes that even as we traverse adversity and are shaped and molded by the trials and careless wounds that sometimes get inflicted upon us, the refuge of God’s love and care is always available to us—as close and as precious as a breath. As winter darkness gathers closer, and at the end of each day, it is God’s graciousness that is our comfort and promise fulfilled.

Most Merciful God, we praise and bless You,
remembering your faithfulness and care for our souls.
Holy Spirit, abide within us,
and give us charity toward each other, as you love us.
You are our refuge,
You who uphold the stars as they tell their tales,
You who uphold us in life and in death.
Teach us to number our days as your holy gift,
that we may serve You and each other with joy, Lord Christ.
Bless and keep us, O Redeemer,
and place the seal of your gracious love upon those for whom we pray.


(This was first published on the Episcopal Cafe's Speaking to the Soul on October 25, 2017.)