Sunday, September 29, 2019

Rich in Soul: Sermon for Proper 21 C, Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Periodically in American Christianity, a theory known as the “prosperity gospel” or “the gospel of wealth” is preached by some religious leaders, often quite popularly. The basic idea is that, if you pray this prayer or give money to that preacher, you will receive wealth and blessings from God. 

 The problem with this is that it is engaging in what is called “magical thinking.” One type of magical thinking is called superstition—where you see a baseball player always eating chicken before a game, or avoiding stepping on the baseline, or not shaving during the play-offs, because he believes it will bring him luck. Sometimes this kind of thing is light-hearted. 

I have a friend who, when she loses something, puts a dollar under a St. Anthony figurine on her mantle, since he is the patron saint of lost things—and frankly, I will admit to calling on St. Anthony to help me find things too—can’t hurt, right? 

 I once knew a strict Baptist woman whose house had been on the market for so long that she went and bought one of the specially made St. Joseph figurines and buried it head down next to her “For Sale” sign—and boom- the house sold. She was aghast—and her world was rocked. It’s a real thing, too, here in St. Louis. Don’t believe me? Just google “St. Joseph sell your house.” 

Sometimes it gets a little more desperate—when I was a kid, a famous televangelist in Tulsa famously told his followers that if they didn’t send him $8 million by March, 1987, God was going to “call him home.” Spoiler alert: he supposedly got the $8 million in 10 days’ time, and he lived for another 22 years. 

Magical thinking, though, can lead to the arrogant belief that if you do X, then God will have to do Y. That kind of magical thinking assumes that humans can control God and figure God out so that God follows our sense of justice and our sense of fairness. 

 Even worse, this kind of magical thinking about money and blessing also implies the inverse: it leads to the belief that anyone who experiences hard times or difficulties is being cursed by God. This kind of thinking is one of the ideas that Jesus constantly challenged. Further it flies in the face of our experience: think of all the times we see bad things happen to good people, and good things happen to bad people! Believing in a simplistic system like this will only lead to doubt, despair, and denial of the love of God by those who, through no fault of their own, suffer. 

And a word about the use of the term “Pharisees.” It is at this point that I realize how much I owe Amy-Jill Levine, whose work I have been reading in the 3 years since I last revisited these notes. She points out that many of the criticisms of “the Pharisees” were inserted into the documents of the early church after 70 AD, with the fall of the Temple. The problem that she points out is that the Pharisees ended up founding the post-Temple Judaism we now see, and they became many of its first rabbis. Thus, blanket criticism of the Pharisees feeds into the dangerous anti-Semitism that was spawned in the first century CE, and is always lurking in the Church. The idea of Jews as greedy and obsessed with wealth is a slander as old as time—and Hitler used that resentment to great effect. (1) 

If we look at this parable as the third in a series from Jesus (beginning with the Prodigal Son, to the Dishonest Steward, and now to this story) as pointing out the problems that worship of wealth can create for any person from any background. Thus, I propose that we understand that there are certainly many people for whom love of wealth is a not just a stumbling block to their spiritual development, but an idol they worship in place of God. It is wrong and historically inaccurate to claim that all members of a certain religious group behave badly, especially when the failing being talked about is a universal within MANY groups. 

Instead of using the word “Pharisee,” I will be using the term "opponent." I am convinced that that is what we should call those who worship money to the exclusion of all else what they are—opponents of the values God commands us to embrace, and opponents of the way of life Jesus calls us to embody. 

That’s why it is important to take a look at the verses that bridge between last week’s perplexing gospel and this week’s reading. Starting at the last verse of last week’s gospel, here are the intervening verses: 
No slave can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.’
The opponents, who were lovers of money, heard all this, and they ridiculed him. So he said to them, ‘You are those who justify yourselves in the sight of others; but God knows your hearts; for what is prized by human beings is an abomination in the sight of God. 

Jesus then continues with this parable to illustrate his point. The rich man, who is a symbol for those who love money more than God, has squandered his life in focusing on his own comfort and honor (being dressed in purple and fine linen signified one’s status more loudly than shouting from the rooftops). The poor man is allowed to languish at the rich man’s very gate, with no mention of any care being given to him—he is there, but “invisible” and unacknowledged—just as many of us respond when we see the poor on the street. 

The poor man is indeed pitiful, not only due to his poverty, but because he is also covered in sores which make him unclean and further accentuated that he is cut off from all decent society. The licking of the sores by dogs is a fine touch within the Mediterranean culture, since dogs were also often seen as unclean—just goes to show how cultures are different, since many of us see this behavior by our pets as signs of love and attempts to comfort us, and we know dogs’ mouths are cleaner than ours, on average. 

Notice the use of names here. The rich man gets no name—he could be anyone. But Jesus tips his hand early in this story when he not only gives the poor man a name, but a name that has special meaning. Lazarus means “God has helped” in Hebrew. Further, when we hear the name “Lazarus,” we think of Jesus’s friend whom he raised from the dead—and this is a story about death. How can Jesus’s opponents be right about money being a sign of blessing and its lack a sign of curse, if the poor man is the one literally “helped by God?” Even more important in helping us judge the rich man is this: he KNOWS the name of the poor man he ignored as he strutted about in fine clothes with a full belly. He knew Lazarus’s name—and yet ignored his need for food, shelter, and medical care. 

This is an important realization to sit with. In an ironic reversal, the rich man “name drops” Lazarus to Abraham—possibly out of a delusion that he NOW recognizes the humanity that had sat, sick, suffering, shivering, at the rich man’s very gates. Or more likely, NOT.

In our parable, he STILL ignores Lazarus as a person, but demands that Father Abraham send Lazarus to wait first on him and then on his brothers, without ever deigning to talk to Lazarus directly. That alone makes it easier for us to understand that he STILL, even in the alleged torment of Hades, doesn’t get it—at all. 

In the best translation of this story, the image of Lazarus's comfort is even sharper: it states that Lazarus was in Abraham’s bosom, or embrace. This, interestingly, is an image from feasting as well. People reclined at table on couches, their head propped on the left hand, eating with their right. One gets an image of Lazarus lying up against Abraham at the great heavenly banquet. If Lazarus is next to Abraham, he is in the place of honor (remember a few weeks ago, when Jesus advised people to sit at the low place at the table so that they could be honored by being asked to move up? Where you sat at the table had deep significance. 

 The image of TWO feasts in this reading, then, re-enacts Luke’s combination of “blessings” and “woes” in Luke 6:21 and 6:25:
‘Blessed are you who are hungry now, 
   for you will be filled. 
‘Blessed are you who weep now, 
   for you will laugh. 

These are then turned on their heads as a caution: 

‘Woe to you who are full now, 
    for you will be hungry. 
‘Woe to you who are laughing now, 
    for you will mourn and weep.'

This is not to say that those who have money are evil—many people make great use of their personal savings to help others. For those for whom wealth is simply a tool to help others, money CAN be a blessing. However, there certainly is the tendency in our society today to believe that the poor are undeserving of help, and that they are not only to blame for their condition, but to RESENT them and to claim that their condition is something that they have chosen. It's a crazy claim. Yet, those doing the criticizing of the poor also have no desire to actually BE poor. If the poor are cleverly manipulating a system, why doesn’t everyone emulate them? 

The rich man, ultimately, in his life served himself, served his belly, served his status. He never served the poor, and so he never served God. This parable again reminds us that dehumanizing the poor is one of the most un-Godly acts we can take. When it comes down to basics, the point of the Torah and the point of the Gospel is to describe how to live a fully human life, and to understand what that means. It is always good, when considering that goal, to remember the concept of shalom, a word that includes the meaning of health, wholeness, well-being, peace, and contentment. Shalom is both a blessing, a prayer, and a hope for the future. 

What if, instead of engaging in magical thinking, we engaged in the magic of hope in action, especially when it comes to how we live and work with others? Many of us have had too much of hopelessness. Many of us have probably heard the excuse that alleviating poverty is impossible, a self-serving argument that actually makes poverty more widespread and more desperate, more hopeless. Pope Paul VI made this point in 1967 in his encyclical “On the progress of peoples:” 

It is not simply a question of eliminating hunger and reducing poverty. It is not enough to combat destitution, urgent and necessary as this is. The point at issue is the establishment of a human society in which everyone, regardless of race, religion, or nationality, can live a truly human life free from bondage imposed by men and the forces of nature not sufficiently mastered, a society in which freedom is not an empty word, and where Lazarus the poor man can sit at the same table as the rich man.(2) 

 That beloved old hymn, God of Grace and God of Glory that we sang as the processional at the 10:30 service, reminds us of a better way. Hear again what verse 3 has to say: 

Cure your children's warring madness; 
bend our pride to your control; 
shame our wanton, selfish gladness, 
rich in things and poor in soul. 
Grant us wisdom, grant us courage, 
lest we miss your kingdom's goal, 
lest we miss your kingdom's goal. 

God IS our help, as Lazarus’s name implies, and God’s love offers us life, grace, and forgiveness— not just through some hope in the distant future, but RIGHT NOW. God is our help—through each other, right now. This parable reminds us that we are bound up together and called to care for each other as God cares for us and protects us. It is when we seize hold of our common humanity and celebrate it rather than resent each other and fail to really see each other that we become rich in heart, rich in soul. 


Preached at the 505 on September 28 and at 8:00 and 10:30 on September 29 at St. Martin's Episcopal Church, Ellisville, MO.

Jeremiah 32:1-3a, 6-15
Psalm 91:1-6, 14-16
1 Timothy 6:6-19
Luke 16:19-31

1) Amy Jill Levine and Ben Witherington III, The Gospel of Luke: New Cambridge Bible Commentary.
2) Pope Paul VI, On the Development of the Peoples .

Thursday, September 19, 2019

Prayer, day 2424

Lord Jesus,
you open your arms to us on the cross
to embrace and redeem the entire world:
hear our prayer.
Bring us to repentance for our sins,
and determination to follow your Way of life
in every thing we do.
Bring us to love each other
as You loved both your disciples
and your enemies.
Bring us to so delight in your gospel
that we mold our lives around it.
Fill us to overflowing
with your love, wisdom, and compassion, Blessed Savior,
and make us worthy of your name.
Bless and keep all those who cry out to you,
especially those we now name.


Wednesday, September 18, 2019

The Beauty of Letting Go: Speaking to the Soul for September 18, 2019

A few weeks ago, one of my friends posted a beautiful meme on their Facebook page, depicting autumn leaves, with this quote: “The trees are about to show us how lovely it is to let things go.” Now, given that, at that moment, we still had two official weeks of summer, it was 97 degrees outside with about 80% humidity, and the trees and grass were as green as a dollar bill, I saved the image to look at later. 

But this morning, the air was crisp and cool when I stepped outside. A breeze murmured in the pine in my front yard. Our one remaining child who is a college student is well and truly in the midst of the semester, and Family Day is this week at his school. Football and marching bands and sweaters on sale in the catalogues remind us of the incipient change of the season. And I looked up and saw the first hint of autumn color in a leaf on the maple tree in my neighbor’s yard. I took a deep breath, felt the tickle of leaf-mold in that breath—and promptly sneezed. Ah, well. 

Nonetheless, the coming of autumn is a lesson in grace and gratitude. Summer subsides with a sigh, or sometimes with a struggle, here in the Midwest, but no matter what it will relax into autumn in an incremental, generous embrace of gold, scarlet, and, eventually, ochre. The tempo of life seems to slow a bit, along with the sap running in the veins of trees, and chevrons of birds begin arrowing their way southward. When I was a child, I was sad to see them go, but now I know that in a few months they will return, and my main hope for them now is to wish them well on their journey.

The trees ARE about to show us how lovely it is to let things go. They are also about to show us how to embrace the new. It seems hard to imagine that now, but the truth is that each leaf releases its hold on the branch because already there is already the dream and anticipation of spring gathering itself up so that, come spring, new leaves will be born again from that same branch. The tree doesn’t shed its leaves only from a posture of giving, but so that it can receive new blessing, new life, new growth. There is giving, but it is not obligation so much as desire, desire to enrich the ground which in turn enriches the roots of the tree itself and all its companions of fern and ivy that entwine around its base.

The letting go is necessary for the embrace of new life, new hope, new possibilities. As autumn begins in earnest, may we embrace the language not just of giving but of desiring, of gazing with a bright, hopeful gaze toward the future, with all its possibilities, of embracing the promise of spring even as autumn leaves start to fall.

(This was first published at the Episcopal Cafe's Speaking to the Soul for September 18, 2019.)

Prayer, day 2423

Eternal, Almighty, Merciful God,
we lift our hands to you in gratitude
and lay our hearts before You.

Turn to us and forgive us our sins,
O God of Grace,
and help us put away our willful ways,
our acquiescence to callousness,
our failure to walk in each other's shoes.
Lord, give us open hearts:
when strangers approach us for help,
let us see that You are coming to us, Lord Christ,
and respond in love and compassion.
Renew a right spirit within us,
that we may follow in the Way of Jesus
carrying a banner of healing and reconciliation.

Loving One,
send out your Spirit to bless and inspire us,
and guide us in our journey to your truth.
Place all who call upon You
within the broad expanse of your mercy, O Lord,
and bend tenderly over those we now name.


Tuesday, September 17, 2019

Prayer, day 2422

Eternal One,
who is making the heavens and the earth,
holy and honored be your Name.

In humility, we bow down before You,
who have loved us into being:
abide within us always.
Grant us wisdom, O God,
that we may turn our minds toward peace
by building foundations of justice and love.
Help us cast away our hearts of stone
that beat like fists within us;
place within us hearts for love and service, we pray.

Take us by the hand and lead us
in the way of your commandments,
abounding in amity and hope.
By the love of Christ,
mark us as your own sheep,
and place the seal of your healing
on those for whom we pray.


Monday, September 16, 2019

Prayer 2421

Holy One,
we lift our hearts and hopes to you,
in adoration and praise.
Guide us in paths of compassion, kindness, and integrity
that we may embody your love today.
Grant us the strength to persevere
against hatred and hardness of heart
and grant your peace to these beloveds
as we pray

Sunday, September 15, 2019

The Scandal of God's Welcome: Sermon for Proper 19C

A few years ago when my kids were little, we had gone to the mall with one of our good friends and her kids. Since her baby was in a stroller, and they don’t allow strollers on escalators, we had gone into one of the department stores to use the elevator, which moved at a glacial pace. As we herded all of our kids off on the middle floor of this store, one of them stayed back on the elevator and pushed the button while we were bent over the baby. We didn’t realize what had happened before the elevator had actually departed, so we had to wait to see what floor the elevator stopped at. 

My friend stayed with the other four kids while I then took the store escalator to the floor it had stopped at. Yet when I got there, no kid. So I called on the cell phone, to find out that the little imp had stayed on the elevator and pushed the button back down, and the door had opened and -- voila! There he was. Yet when the kid got off the elevator, he was actually mad at us—and told us we were “bad” for getting lost. No, YOU were lost, his mom replied. “No mama. I stayed in the elevator. I didn’t know where you were. YOU were lost,” he insisted. 

 In her relief, his mother stopped being mad at him, though. Our immediate reaction was gratitude and joy at getting him back safe and sound. As he continued to be mad at us, it was then a struggle not to burst out laughing at his insistence that wehad been the ones lost, which would have led to a full-blown meltdown in public, so we managed to hold it in. Eventually everyone calmed down, and we went about our shopping excursion without further incident. 

I guess it all depends on your perspective—which party counts as lost, and which party counts as the found. 

And that’s exactly the point that Jesus is making with our two little parables today. Those who the religious leaders see as the lost—sinners and tax collectors—are actually the ones doing the finding: they’ve found Jesus, and are following him about to learn from him. They have taken a significant step toward aligning themselves with Jesus’s message. There’s an aura of wonder and relief on the part of those so-called “sinners.” The fact that they are also eating with Jesus—in Luke Jesus does an awful lot of teaching at the banquet table, as we have noted before—shows that there is joy, because big communal meals were festive occasions. 

Through God’s radical welcome, embodied by Jesus’s refusal to be bound by societal categories of exclusion, they have gone from being outcasts to invited guests. So of course there is joy. The word joy is the most common word in our gospel passage for today, in fact. And here the gospel reinforces what we are talking about in our Invite Welcome Connect ministry. When we invite people to come to church with us, we are showing how much we value them by inviting them into accompanying us on our spiritual journey, inviting them into this place which is such a treasured part of our lives. 

Jesus invites those who were overlooked and outcast specifically to come talk with him and eat with him, and in doing so proclaims their worth to the world. So, I wonder if the religious leaders who are challenging Jesus and grumbling at him actually get that, by their refusal to themselves sit down with those they look down on, that THEY are the lost ones? I doubt it. They seem pretty sure that they are righteous. 

The Pharisees and scribes are certain of their righteousness—they are the 99 sheep. They are unified as a community by their righteousness. Sinners are outcasts through their own fault, and it stands to reason that they have to change in order to rejoin the “flock.” Yet here it is the righteous who are abandoned by the shepherd for the sake of the one sinner who is lost. This is not how the Pharisees believe society should be ordered—sinners are lost through their own fault, and therefore count for nothing. 

Jesus does not agree. I am convinced that he is challenging his opponents to examine with new eyes who were the lost, and who were the found here. Our opening verse states that the sinners and tax collectors had found Jesus and were coming near to listen to him. It’s the scribes and Pharisees that hold themselves aloof, who have wandered away from the flock. Jesus is talking about lost sheep and coins with the leaders, those who undoubtedly think they are not lost—and yet they certainly not only fail to understand Gpd’s love but reject God’s economy as Jesus embodies it. Their self-righteousness has blinded them and unmoored them. They see Jesus’s welcome as a scandal. 

In the second parable, that of the woman and the lost coin, Jesus sets up a similar situation. But this second story is more shocking to those grumbling against Jesus, because this time the part of God is played by a woman. Once again, it is God (as the woman) who takes the initiative to find what is lost. Further, Jesus lets the so-called sinners even further off the hook, here—because of course the coin is not at fault for being lost—it can’t wander off on its own, like a sheep can. 

In both stories, God (as the shepherd or the woman) takes the initiative to find the lost. The entire way of life for the Pharisees and scribes is being challenged here. They believe that the righteous should not be counted for less than the lost-- but that is exactly what Jesus is saying with this parable. They also believe that sinners should have to work for their redemption through adopting right actions—but the shepherd doesn’t require anything of the lost sheep or coin. God carries the lost back into community after seeking out the lost. Just as we saw in the Jeremiah reading last week, it is God who is faithful and constantly approaching the lost and initiating reconciliation. 

God’s welcome can be scandalous, though, to those who don’t see how lost we ALL can become. I also am convinced that Jesus’s parables here are not meant to taunt the Pharisees, but actually preach a word of comfort to them, if only they could let go of their hard-hearted desire to ostracize and punish those that they think are beneath them. After all, if the shepherd had simply shrugged at the loss of the one, and remained with the 99, the message would have been that one sheep had no value. And by extension that means individually each of the sheep have no value. No sheep would have been safe. But by being willing to do anything to find the lost sheep, all sheep are assured of their individual preciousness and worth in the eyes of the shepherd. 

With these two little parables, Jesus makes it clear that the Pharisees should not be disgusted by Jesus eating with “sinners,” but should themselvesembrace their common humanity and sit with the sinners, too. Remember, the parable about the shepherd starts off with placing the Pharisees in the role of the shepherd: “Which of you…” Jesus asks them, and the gloves come off right there. Because they identify as being the godly, they of course are expected to behave as God would. God is willing to risk everything to have the lost returned to the flock. Can they say the same? 

God’s boldness and relentless love can seem overwhelming. After all, we live in a context in which we carefully consider risk and reward before doing almost anything. And so that question Jesus asks challenges us as much as it did those Pharisees and scribes, so long ago. 

"Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it?” 

What would we say in response? I am willing to bet, that with the exception of maybe Sherrie Algren, most of us have very little familiarity with work with flocks or herds or any number of animals above the amount of three. But even those of us who are hard-core suburbanites can look at the details of this question and wonder if Jesus isn’t being just a bit, um, impractical. The details are this: One hundred sheep. One lost. 100-1=99, left in the wilderness—WILDERNESS, mind you, where there are lions and tigers and bears, oh my-- to go find one that didn’t have the sense to stay with the herd? 

Seems like any shepherd who might act like Jesus’s proverbial shepherd might end up with not just 99, but maybe even 70. 
Or maybe 50. 
Or maybe none. 

There are a lot of wolves out there in the wilderness, after all. 

The practical thing is to hang on to those 99 who had the sense not to wander off and chalk the lost one up to Darwinism in action. Yes, it’s sad, we often tell ourselves, but you can’t save everyone. 

But this is where the values of the gospel once again encourage us not to be bound by any law but the law of love and community. That shepherd goes after the one because without that one his flock is not complete. He will always know that the one was lost. Jesus’s love is not a practical love—it is an extravagant love that doesn’t count the cost but instead rejoices at the prospect of gain. 

Jesus’s love is a prodigal love. Jesus insists, “NO, we can save everyone. Everyone—meaning every ‘one’-- matters.” And what if all the sheep went with the shepherd to help look for the lost? Isn’t that our call, too? God’s love insists, especially, that each particular life matters, and insists against the brutal calculus of the world that the lives of the oppressed are precious. 

We’re the ones who keep trying to create artificial barriers of competition in claiming status as God’s beloved—we’re the ones who do that, not God. God’s love is not like pie, after all—there’s plenty enough to go around. The gospel always slaps us upside the head and reminds us that God’s love for us isn’t practical, but extravagant, bountiful, abundant. 

Which of you, Jesus asks, would not go out and rejoice over the sheep being found? Jesus is calling us to put aside our assumptions and allow ourselves to be open and vulnerable with each other. Sometimes the person who seems to have it all figured out inwardly feels as lost and as lonely as that missing sheep. We never know the struggles or burdens others are carrying, despite appearances. Jesus calls us to look beyond the surface and rejoice rather than grumble when another person is invited to the banquet, when another sheep is found. Let us rejoice at the scandal of God’ welcome. 


Preached at the 505 on September 14 and at 8:00 and 10:30 am on September 15, 2019 at St. Martin's Episcopal Church, Ellisville, MO.

Jeremiah 4:11-12, 22-28Psalm 141 Timothy 1:12-17Luke 15:1-10

Prayer 2420: Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Almighty One, 
whose hand supports all that is with love, 
we gather together to praise You. 

Watchful Shepherd, 
we are prone to wander and go astray: 
we give thanks that you abandon no one, 
but seek the lost always. 
When we hear the cries of other sheep, 
calling out from the brambles, 
may we go with you, O Christ, 
to restore the lost and outcast to community. 

Holy One, 
we rest securely upon your shoulders, 
knowing you are always with us: 
pour out the balm of your comfort 
on those for who we pray.


Saturday, September 14, 2019

Prayer, day 2419

As the morning sun blesses us with light,
we rise to ring out praises to our God:
Lord, in your mercy, hear our prayer.

Lead us into the path of life,
O Most Holy Spirit,
for we need your tender care and guidance.
Settle us into the crook of your arm, Almighty One,
for we are prone to wander and worry.
You are our strength and our stronghold:
send us forth, renewed and fired with joy,
to do your work in the world, O God.
Give us courage in the face of adversity,
and hope in the face of struggles:
Lord Jesus, may we walk with you this day.

We lift our prayers and praises before You, O Lord:
spread your sheltering wings over those for whom we pray.

Friday, September 13, 2019

Prayer, day 2418

O Merciful One, 
we bend our hearts before you, 
praising and glorifying your Name. 
Pour out your wisdom upon us, O God,
that we may walk in love and faithfulness. 
Make us magnanimous and joyful 
in all our work, Lord, 
knit together in love, 
bearers of your grace and peace. 
Fill us with the beauty of holiness, 
and set us aflame by your Spirit. 
Blessed Savior, we place our hearts before you, 
and ask your blessing upon the concerns we carry.


Thursday, September 12, 2019

Prayer 2417: Inspired by Matthew 2:13-23

Almighty God, we lift our hearts to you, 
that they may be purified of all meanness
and poverty of spirit, 
that our wills may be molded by your love. 

Blessed Infant Jesus, 
who was forced to flee the rampages of a tyrant, 
guide us to open our arms and hearts to all 
who seek refuge from storm or violence. 
Help us, O God, to hear the cry of innocents 
as they seek assistance and respite. 
Help us to remember the blessings without number 
that you have showered upon us, O Savior, 
and let us respond to those in need 
with compassion and welcome. 

Spirit of the Living God, 
burnish us with goodness and mercy 
that we may broadcast grace 
with every action we take today. 
Gather within your arms, Lord Christ, 
all who cry out for help of relief, 
and grant your peace to those whose cares we lay before you.


Wednesday, September 11, 2019

Prayer, day 2416: On the Anniversary of the 9/11 attacks

Loving One, we put our trust in You, 
for You are our shield and our rest, 
ever-present in times of joy and sorrow. 
We place before You 
our remembrances of those who have left us: 
may your peace and joy shine upon them. 
Comfort those who mourn 
and strengthen those who falter, 
that they may know your healing presence. 
We thank You for those 
who are your hands, face, and feet in the world today: 
make us more like them. 
We thank You for the example of the brave, 
who are daily willing to lay their lives on the line 
for their brothers and sisters. 
We thank you for the example of those 
who embody compassion and healing 
even in the face of chaos. 
Guide us into ways of justice, benevolence, and truth, 
that we may treat others as we wish to be treated. 
Place the seal of your blessing, O God, 
upon those we now remember to You by name.


Tuesday, September 10, 2019

Prayer, day 2415

Holy One, we seek your radiance
even as the shades of night are lifted.

May we nurture your radiance within us, Lord,
and recognize it within all that surrounds us.
May your wisdom, O God, dawn in our hearts,
and guide our feet into paths of peace and justice.
May we use our hands to heal, not hurt,
and may we work for reconciliation and unity.
May we ever seek to fill the empty spaces within us
and within our communities
with compassion and generosity.
May we grow green and strong in the courts of the Holy,
and bear the fruit of mercy abundantly.

God of Grace, Light of Light, we open our hearts to You:
in your tender love grant us your peace as we pray.


Sunday, September 8, 2019

How the Light Gets In: Sermon for Proper 18C, the Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Last year the long-awaited sequel to Mary Poppins hit the theatres, with Mary Poppins taking care of Michael Banks’s children, who have just lost their mother. In one of the scenes, the children break a bowl that had belonged to their late mother, a bowl that she had told them was priceless. So one of their adventures occurs when Mary Poppins takes them and the bowl to her cousin, played by the incredible Meryl Streep, who is known to be able to fix anything. They arrive to find that the cousin’s life itself is a bit topsy-turvy at the moment, and set about to try to help put it right. I don’t want to spoil it—you need to watch the movie. 

But it got me to thinking: What do most of us do with a broken bowl? In our culture today, most often the answer is to throw it away. After all, goods are relatively cheap. But sometimes, we decide we want to try to mend the pot. Maybe it’s got sentimental value, like the bowl the Banks children had. So if we decide to keep the bowl, we look for the crazy glue or the clear gorilla glue, and we try to make the bowl look as if it had never been broken. We like things to look perfect. But really, are we just fooling ourselves? In our hearts we will probably always remember that the bowl has been broken. 

When I was 12 our family visited friends in Japan, and I learned that Japanese have another answer for what to do with a broken pottery bowl: they embrace the breaks and imperfections and mend the bowl if possible. The Japanese practice an art of repairing broken pottery known as kintsugi, that embraces the broken places and spaces within the pot, embraces the cracks—and even embellishes them. As the poet Jane Hirshfield notes in an essay on the healing quality of poetry, and its ability to sit within the broken places, the words “healing and health” come from the word “wholeness.” She explains: 
 “Wholeness does not mean unmarred, or simple, or ignorant of suffering. It does not exclude any part of experience or history. Consider kintsugi, a Japanese repair technique that is both an aesthetic and a philosophical stance. In reassembling a broken tea bowl, a cup, or a plate, the repairing artisan uses, in place of transparent glue, a mix of lacquer and powdered gold. The end result is not an object trying to appear as if it had never been damaged: kintsugi, done well, offers damage made visible as part of the cup’s history, damage made beautiful because the cup was repaired without denial. It may be that any fully rounded truth, seen without denial, will appear to us as beauty. …Kintsugi accepts life’s irreparability and embraces it.”(1) 

Can there be beauty in brokenness? I am reminded of the line from the great singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen’s song, “Anthem:” 

The birds they sand
At the break of day
Start again
I heard them say
Don't dwell on what
will pass away
Or what is yet to be

Yeah the wars they will
Be fought again
The holy dove
She will be caught again
Bought and sold
And bought again
The dove is never free

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That's how the light gets in  (2)

In our reading from Jeremiah today, the prophet is sent to watch a potter at work at his or her wheel. He observes the potter’s activity so that he may see the metaphor of the clay as synonymous with the people of Israel. Yahweh is the potter. The warning contained in Jeremiah is that if God realizes that the clay is misshapen, God can smash it and destroy so that Yahweh can begin again—we remember that, because it scares us. At any moment, the prophet perceives, the potter could simply destroy the pot rather than repair it, deciding it is too spoiled. This is intended as a warning for the prophet to convey to the people: because of their resistance to God, they too have become misshapen, and risk being destroyed by God as punishment. 

The message communicated there is one that still remains powerful for some people, especially in dominant American Christianity. They see someone's suffering as being placed upon them by God, in punishment for something wrong they have done. It’s a simple proposition: they believe that God punishes wrongdoing with suffering, so if they are suffering, it must be due to their own sinfulness. 

Others of us see flaws in this reasoning. First of all, sometimes people immersed in wrongdoing prosper and innocent people suffer. Sometimes people emerge from trials in their lives scarred and misshapen through no fault of their own. On the other hand, others scoff entirely, and deny any agency of God in times of suffering or trial. 

In the centuries since Jeremiah was written, we have acquired great knowledge about science, medicine, and technology. We explain human behavior through relatively new fields, like psychology. And for some people, that is enough. They think they’ve got it all figured out, and that we human beings are in charge. Yet even with this mindset, most would agree with the idea that we, like clay, are molded and shaped through life. There are many influences that shape us throughout our lives. As much as we like to think that we are responsible in making ourselves and our lives, Jeremiah reminds us that God is there all the time, asking our willingness to be shaped and molded into healing and wholeness. 

But we also have to acknowledge that God is not our only influence. We also have to acknowledge that we are also shaped by others. And indeed, every person who has passed through our lives has a role in shaping the person each of us have become. Sometimes, we are shaped lovingly, kindly, and we become better, stronger, more beautiful. Sometimes, we fall into harsher hands, hands that attempt to squeeze us too tightly, or press upon us too hard, and we have trouble maintaining our balance as we limp away, misshapen, listing to one side. 

Some people have the utter gall to see others’ brokenness as fatal, and to declare them useless, fit only for being thrown away. That, my friends, is spitting upon the image of God that resides within all of us and all of creation. It also ignores the fact that we all have wear and tear within us, we all have brokenness. It must be a way of refusing to acknowledge their own pain and imperfections—I don’t know. It’s not up to us to decide who is worthy and who is not. It is just our job to love each other. 

We are called to acknowledge that a good portion of the rest of us may spend a huge chunk of our lives trying to make up for the injuries inflicted upon us by some of those influences in our lives. Some of us have lived through episodes in our childhoods that haunt us and have threatened to crush us—the shouts of our mothers and fathers that arose in the night and awakened us from childhood sleep night after night, or alcoholic rages that break the dishes. Hands that have touched us in anger, seeking to break us rather than shape us. Hands that have attempted to shape us for their own ends, who have used us and then discarded us. 

Those of us on a journey of faith often arrive here because we are crying out for God’s healing hands in our lives, to help us come to peace with injuries or breaks like the ones just described. To talk about a God who is waiting to crush us is to show that we do not understand God’s message at all. It just doesn’t fit with the God we have experienced in dark moments in our lives—a God of incredible power, yes, but the power to support us with limitless love, a God whose faith in US forgives us for our sins and foolishness and lack of faith over and over again. 

Of all the books in the Bible, according to Old Testament expert Walter Brueggemann, it is Jeremiah that depicts God suffering real distress when faced with our casting God away.(3) The most important message to take from the full sweep of Jeremiah is this: it is a broken-hearted God who is taking the initiative in trying to renew and reconcile the relationship between humanity and God, both as individuals and as groups. The book of Jeremiah is notable for its portrayal of God as suffering real pain and hurt from the betrayal by the people. That’s what should stand out to us—not the threatened destruction that too many people like to imagine God holding over human heads. 

The problem with using verses like these to attempt to frighten us into some sort of rigid behavior is that it ignores the overriding thrust of the truth that God has revealed to us over and over again: that God reaches out to us repeatedly, and loves us unconditionally, even when we go our own blind way. 

God also uses us human agents—friends and relations who care about us—to try to help us toward healing from the places we have been broken in our relationships with others. If we really observe our pain, and open ourselves to healing, we become aware that, like we have heard in our reading from the letter to the Hebrews last week, we have encountered angels within our lives, usually unaware that they were such until later. God is also there both as a presence and in sending us healing friends and companions, offering healing to those of us who have been harmed and marred by the actions of ourselves or others within our lives—if only we will accept the hope and promise of God’s grace and healing hand to help us. To make us whole. And the Hebrew word for wholeness is “shalom.” 

And we can do the same for others. Our own brokenness is how the light gets in, as Leonard Cohen sang, and brings us to empathy and compassion and the practice of forgiveness and grace with others. That’s a gift from God—that our mended places can give us insight into helping others along their journey to healing and wholeness of God. Rather than marinating in old hurts and resentments, and allowing them to continue to mar our lives, we have another choice—we can let that light in, shining on all the darkest places within us, and accept God’s healing love, and become forces for healing ourselves. 

As the parable of the Prodigal Son reminds us, God is not a vengeful father waiting to crush us into dust. Rather, God runs to us the second we turn back from our errant ways, and just when we think we are as far as we can be from God, in our repenting we turn and find God right alongside us all along. God sends God’s own son to be one of us—and thereby experiences all the pain and loss that is part of our human existence. 

That is why this image from Jeremiah of a potter at a wheel is the centerpiece of a medieval poem prayed during the Jewish observance of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. On a day that is dedicated to repentance and seeking forgiveness, the liturgy still reminds us that, like an artist, God has made us, and continually is working within our lives, even when we go astray. God understands our weaknesses, and through the gift of unlimited grace calls us again and again to reconcile with God and with each other, to allow ourselves to be shaped, to acknowledge that God can transform and sustain us even in our darkest moments because God made each of us, whether saint or sinner, cares for us, and loves us for all eternity.

That’s actually right there in the same readings that others twist for their own ends. But there is also good news about healing for those of us who have been bruised and battered by some of the hands that have shaped us throughout our lives. We are not called to be perfect. We are not called to be unafraid all the time. We are not called to never have doubts or questions. We ARE called to embody God’s healing, reconciling presence into a broken, divided, hurting, fearful world, as best we can. To be bearers of God’s grace because we have been recipients of God’s grace. 

As our readings from Jeremiah and our psalm reminds us, God presses upon us behind and before, God’s hand is upon us, shaping us, never giving up on us, reconciling who we are with who God intends for us to be – a people forgiven, healed, renewed, shaped! A people empowered to go forth into the world, reconciled and at peace with ourselves, and with our God, and with one another. A people called to help embody God’s healing hands in the lies of others. That’s how it works. 

The hands of God’s love never stop trying to ease us, to soothe us, to work with us and within us to help shape us into our best selves. Like a potter at her wheel, God’s hands are creating within us, right now, offering us a profound sense of release, a profound reconciliation, a profound sense of peace and wholeness—the kind of peace that comes from being in the presence of a love that is so amazing that we are reshaped, and are never the same again. 

 A peace that comes to us through a God that reaches out to us, again and again, constantly trying to embrace our brokenness as avenues toward beauty. Because that is how the light gets in.


Preached at the 505 on September 7 and at 8:00am and 10:30am on September 8, 2019 at St. Martin's Episcopal Church, Ellisville, MO.

Jeremiah 18:1-11Psalm 139:1-5, 12-17Philemon 1-21Luke 14:25-33

1) Jane Hirshfield, “Poetry, Permeability, and Healing,” at The American Academy of Poetry, July 1, 2018, at
2) Leonard Cohen, "Anthem," from the album The Future, 1992.
3) Walter Brueggemann, A Commentary on Jeremiah: Exile and Homecoming