Thursday, September 22, 2022

Last Day of Summer: Speaking to the Soul, September 22, 2022



Yours is the day, yours also the night;
    you established the luminaries and the sun.
You have fixed all the bounds of the earth;
    you made summer and winter.
— Psalm 74:16-17


It is time to gather
the green tomatoes,
even as the day and night are at equinox.
Gourds lie drunkenly in the fields.
The crows exult in thuggery
as they hog the birdfeeders, the jays
cursing them with frat-boy fluency.
Strange migrants, Nashville warblers, phoebes, and vireos,
belly up like tourists in a foreign pub,
nervously observing the commotion,
in the basement of the pecking order.

Whether you call it
haying season
or hay-fever season
reveals your real relationship to the land:
as giver or nuisance.

After years of living in a maze of suburban
lawns crowding haphazardly against each other
like mah-jongg tiles midgame, we now live
where folks like this farmer own tractors unironically,
faded rust colored, almost salmon pink
International Harvesters tilting and
heeling, sailboats in a sea of grass. He’s dragging
a wheel rake behind him, peering over his shoulder
in Half Lord of Fishes pose, the farmer-yogi sagely
trails windrows behind, a serpent effigy mound,
ceremoniously marking the celestial season
transition to equinox
after darkfall.

There’s a sweet clean fragrance of the dew 
vaporizing in the heat
as the grass is tedded rather than tended.
Let the sun do his work,
this final summer sun
in all faithfulness. Summer lingers
until earth turn away at the coming twilight.

The last day of summer is not yet over,
despite the barbarism of storefronts 
full of sweaters, cinnamon, skeletons, even Santas. It is
a precious time of turning from green to gold,
of tending to harvest, of lining up 

what has been received:
this last summer sunset
with gratitude and grace.

-- Leslie Scoopmire, first published this day at Episcopal Journal's Speaking to the Soul on September 22, 2022.

Sunday, September 18, 2022

Faithful in Little Things: Sermon for Proper 20C



First of all, Rev, Shug likes to claim that she always gets the short end of the stick when it comes to difficult readings in the lectionary. This is proof that she is absolutely wrong.

Right off the bat, I would like to say a few things about this perplexing gospel. We have fallen into the habit of thinking that all of Jesus’s parables are stories about God. Not this one, baby. Every single person in this parable is engaging in cut-throat competition. In fact everyone in this parable is looking out for number one. To be specific:

The dishonest steward is, first of all, engaging in corrupt, criminal behavior. He is basically bribing the debtors to owe HIM rather than his master. He may be helping the debtors, but he is doing so with money that is not his. He is planning that they will HAVE to offer him hospitality when he is fired for his original malfeasance. The debtors get part of their debt forgiven, but they know they now owe an unscrupulous person. The master apparently has to admire the utter chutzpah of the steward—and perhaps considers that where before he had debts hanging on the books, at least he has gotten something in repayment.

No one in this parable is either Jesus nor God. Let us be clear.

BUT they certainly are characters that Jesus’s audience, then and now, can recognize. We see people and corporations acting like this all the time. Pay day loan firms, pawn shops, collection agencies and even some municipalities here in our own back yards can and do operate out of this same corner of the economy. 

We see the same thing in corporations who have been ordered by courts to pay large fines and damages for hurting people, or who have squandered the pensions of their employees, simply evading their obligations by declaring bankruptcy to avoid paying the penalty. We see this kind of behavior in impoverished communities, where authorities constantly write tickets for violations of codes to make up for the lack of a tax base. We see people who don’t have enough money to open a banking account being forced to pay part of their money just to cash a check, paying fees much higher than they would pay if they could afford to have a checking account.

Some people have taken this parable to mean that Jesus condemns all wealth as hopelessly corrupt. And, thinking about it, I can think of only one time in scripture where Jesus is depicted as touching money, and he’s not too complementary about it then. Furthermore, the common purse for the disciples was held by Judas. On the surface, the stance Jesus appears to take here is this: Money is corrupt—how can we be surprised when people use it dishonestly?

This is also an opportunity to tell you a bold-faced truth. Sometimes, the gospel will make us uncomfortable. Sometimes preachers are standing before you sweating and wishing to be anywhere else at that moment because we are compelled to acknowledge that Jesus offers forgiveness and grace, yes, but he requires self-examination and repentance as well. Jesus taught about how to live with each other in love and respect. That sometimes means acknowledging where there is injustice in the world, and where we may even profit from it, and then determining to do better. That can be scary. It can make us temporarily feel guilty—or make us lie to ourselves in order NOT to feel guilty. The gospel is NOT always what we want to hear. It IS always what we need to hear. Just don’t shoot the messenger!


The 16th chapter of Luke is all about money, and money can be an overwhelming subject. A hugely powerful subject. Let us remember that for Jesus and his audience, the coins in circulation were themselves reminders that they lived as oppressed people under a foreign empire. This is not the case with us. But growing up working class, I can tell you about knowing the power money has when you DON’T have it, and I can also tell you what it’s like to be able to walk around with $20 in my pocket without having to search the couch cushions. And I do NOT kid myself that I got here on my own.

My parents paid my car insurance until I got married because I worked at a parochial school and rent cost half my paycheck. I couldn’t afford health insurance, because that cost 25% of my pay, and when I got injured, my principal sent me to her doctor and loaned me the money for the visit. The early married years were a blur of how many different ways I could turn 20% fat content hamburger into a meal and not give my spouse and I clogged arteries. And along the way, there were people who tried to take advantage of us. At one point, my brother, sister, and I kept lending each other the same $100 round and round while we were in school. Yet also, all along the way, there were people supporting us, encouraging us, and sharing with us what they had.

But here is where we CAN nod our heads in recognition right along with Jesus’s audience: when we hear about dishonest people manipulating a system that admires dishonesty, we can all nod our heads in recognition.

So what can we take from this gospel reading today?

This is Jesus’s word that provides me with new insight into our relationship with each other, and with money: faithfulness.

In verse 10 Jesus says, "Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much; and whoever is dishonest in a very little is dishonest also in much.”

Faithfulness here is used as a synonym for honesty. Someone who will be honest even in small things will be honest in big things.

Here at St. Martin’s there are many ways little things add up. One of those is our wonderful Laundry Love ministry, which is celebrating its one-year anniversary this month after being delayed for two years by COVID. This ministry is based on a very real, often overlooked need: for clean clothing. There are lots of people in our area that, after paying for the rent, food, and utilities, just don't have any cash left over for laundry. So we encourage you to gather up your spare change, like these quarters here, and put them in this white box. Each month, your contributions are gathered together and they provide clean laundry and dignity to numerous families. Also once each month, on the second Tuesday, volunteers from this parish donate three hours of their time to meet with people and help them get their laundry done at a local laundromat, getting to know our clients in the process.

These are all little things. Little things where we can grow deeper in faithfulness.

And here’s the amazing thing: the last several months your faithfulness in turning in your change has fully funded that month’s Laundry Love—we haven’t had to touch our reserves a bit. What a blessing! And all generated from small things so that we can work, faithfully, for the good of people in our community whose needs are often overlooked.

Jesus reminds us that being faithful, with money or anything, means being honorable. In terms of money, it also means using it humbly, not to self-aggrandize or to separate us from others, but to build relationship. Listen, that’s even what the dishonest steward was doing. 

Jesus’s observation is about humility. First of all, there’s the humility of the little things themselves. Often, the true change in the world comes from the humble power of little things, and faithfulness is a tremendous example of that. I thought about that in the poem I wrote while thinking about this gospel, called “Little But Fierce.”

Whoever is faithful in a very little
is faithful also in much…- Luke 16:10



Some pray for faith to move mountains;
but overlook the gnarled and knotty pine
that grasps the cliff face
with roots as strong as talons
that persistently turn that mountain into soil,
daredevil defying gravity and wind
its needles whistling a laughing alleluia.

Some pray for the faith of a mustard seed,
forgetting, in the parable
it was an ugly, humble weed
better located outside the garden wall.

Lord, let me pray for the faithfulness
proclaimed by the honest little flower
that’s blooming in the pavement crack
or garbage dump; the dandelion,
maned all in white ruff, who
though spurned, has nourished the bees all season.

This is my prayer:
to be brave enough to offer my heart
like a flare of blue in an autumn sky
without calculus of renown or esteem.

O Lord, make me faithful
like little, overlooked things.

Being faithful in little things actually reminds us of the humble power of little things to do great good. If we become mindful about the dozens of ways each day we can do small things for others, our own happiness increases. If we examine the dozens of ways we have money pass through our hands each week, and make a conscious decision to redirect those small amounts toward something that benefits not just ourselves but others, we start developing a habit of being faithful in little things. And since little things make up a majority of our experiences, suddenly the little things add up to big things.

Thus, being faithful in little things builds us up in the habits of holiness and discipleship. It turns each day into a collection of opportunities to make a difference and to live a life of joy and generosity. Developing that habit then outfits us to be bold when great challenges and opportunities present themselves to us.

Being faithful with money means never letting it take over the place in your attention and values that should belong to God: “You cannot serve God and wealth,” Jesus insists. Being faithful in small things restores money to its proper place as a tool for good rather than as something that we serve. So the humility works both ways.

Being faithful in little things is God’s gift to us to enable us to develop our spiritual strength. It offers us the perspective to see opportunity for worship even in simple things throughout the day. Thus even by these small things do we become more openhearted in our dealing with our neighbors. This leads to us being more grateful in our purpose in life and in our testimony to the world of the generous, abundant love of God, reflected in a thousand different ways through our own humble, yet never insignificant actions.

As I pointed out in my rector’s reflection in the Beacon, the little things are our greatest teachers as we grow into adulthood. When we were infants, even little things were big things, because we depended on others to meet our most basic needs. As we became young adults, we learned independence, and insisted on doing things for ourselves—and as long as we stayed humble, those little things gave us confidence. But independence is not where our journey to full personhood ends, especially for those of us who claim to follow Christ. You can’t do whatever you want and follow Jesus. The little things, when considered maturely lead us to the greatest wisdom of all: the wisdom of interdependence, of recognizing the imprint of God in each other and our obligations to each other and our mutual flourishing. That kind of faithfulness leads to true wealth: wealth in spirit, secure in our knowledge that we are living lives of meaning and generosity.

Preached at the 505 on Saturday, September 17, and at the 10:30 am Eucharist on Sunday September 18 at St. Martin's Episcopal Church in Ellisville, MO.

Readings:


Thursday, September 15, 2022

Little But Fierce

  


Whoever is faithful in a very little 

is faithful also in much…- Luke 16:10

 


Some pray for faith to move mountains;
but overlook the gnarled and knotty pine
that grasps the cliff face
with roots as strong as talons
that persistently turn that mountain into soil,
daredevil defying gravity and wind
its needles whistling a laughing alleluia.

 

Some pray for the faith of a mustard seed,
forgetting, in the parable
it was an ugly, humble weed
better located outside the garden wall.

 

Lord, let me pray for the faithfulness 
proclaimed by the honest little flower
that’s blooming in the pavement crack
or garbage dump; the dandelion,
maned all in white ruff, who
though spurned, has nourished the bees all season.

 

This is my prayer: 

to be brave enough to offer my heart
like a flare of blue in an autumn sky
without calculus of renown or esteem.

O Lord, make me faithful 
like little, overlooked things.

-- Leslie Barnes Scoopmire, first published at Episcopal Journal's Speaking to the Soul on September 15, 2022

Thursday, September 8, 2022

The Way Prayer Rises

 


The way the air holds warmth 

like a brimming teacup, tenderly
lifting the turkey vultures so high
their grace is all you see, as they trace
lazy lemniscates 
                     forever,
                           forever,
                               forever,
balancing on a thermal delicately,
black-winged angels gravely waltzing 
           atop the head of a pin

The way the painted sunflower bows
her head under the weight of the bumblebee
and the tickseed heads bristle with hyphenated seeds
that will scatter their blessings over 
the living earth
     and prepare a table before the goldfinch
        in the presence of those who treasure her

The way September’s grasshopper
rasps his way from ditches to gravel roads
his battered wings extolling his travels even as
newborn monarchs iron their wings
     under a radiant, dog-summer sun
          and shadows with edges like knives

The way the redbud leaves dance–
a line in the canopy shifting green to citrine
affirming the beauty of repair, healing, and resilience
like a vein of gold repairing a broken pot
      made more beautiful
            for the continued life it offers

is the way prayer rises and falls


-- This was first published at Episcopal Journal's Speaking to the Soul on September 8, 2022.

Thursday, September 1, 2022

Praise Song at Dawn




Loving Creator,
we rise from our rest to sing your praise,
joining the world You have made holy
through your hands, O God.

The coyotes are back in their dens,
after antagonizing the farm dogs all night;
the barred owls have paused their conversation
under the lacy veil of heaven at sun rise;
katydid, tree frog, and cricket have raised their song
and filled the night with the throb of their praise:
now it is time for us to lift our hearts
and join in the love song of the Earth for our Maker.

Almighty One, this moment is your gift to us, too:
let us use it to center ourselves in your grace.
Let us in our prayer give thanks
for all your blessings to us,
especially this fragile Earth:
may we seek to mend and heal
the frayed cords that bind us to all creation,
and see with new eyes the beauty and completeness
in a drop of rain or sparkle of dew.

The Earth beneath our feet
is your gift to all that lives,
to animal, tree, and stream: all creation is holy.
May we care for each other with tenderness and unity,
walking in the healing path that Jesus invites us to follow.
Tune our hearts to always hear
the echo of our Savior’s laughter and empathy
through the air that still carries the imprint
of his breath and blessing.

Spirit of the Living God,
spread your wings over us
that we may be strengthened to joyfully greet this day,
and grant your peace to all for whom we pray.

Amen.


-- Leslie Barnes Scoopmire. This was first published at Episcopal Journal's Speaking to the Soul on September 1, 2022.

Thursday, August 25, 2022

Guests, Not Hosts: Speaking to the Soul for August 25, 2022




In the beginning, 
our very first story about ourselves ends
with the reminder we were born hungry,
body and soul:

On the day before God rested, at the dawn
of time, God granted the newborn humanity
every herb and fruit tree for our food,
sprung from the same soil
as we were. God invites us all
to a seat at the wedding table of creation-
creation we are bound to
creation we are bound to care for,
into which we ourselves are woven
as a part of the whole. There is
one table, and it is the altar
and sacred precincts
of life itself, insisting on our unity
in shared need for nourishment.

And so it is that we are reminded
in our body’s hunger, and by our food,
from the juiciest boredom-plucked berry
and truffles worth their weight in gold,
to bologna with spelled-out first and second names,
that all the sustenance we receive
is provided from this fragile planet
by God’s tender loving-kindness.

And so it is the soul’s hunger
draws us around God’s holy table
for a foretaste of heaven,
bearing our offerings from God’s creation
formed by human hands, yes,
but sacrament at the invocation
of the finger of God in our midst.
It’s a wonder
our hair doesn’t stand on end.

We are fed
not through our words
but by holy gift
that calls us into God’s own unity.

You can have communion,
or you can have competition,
but not both.
We share with each other
what is not ours to give
or take away.

There can be no jostling or jockeying
for the best place at this table, just rejoicing
that all are invited,
that there is room to spare,
that we are guests, not hosts.

-- This was first published at Episcopal Journal's Speaking to the Soul on August 25, 2022.

Thursday, August 18, 2022

The Gardener Asks for Wonder: Speaking to the Soul, August 18, 2022

 


“Never once in my life did I ask God 
for success or wisdom or power or fame.
I asked for wonder, 

and he gave it to me.” – Abraham Joshua Heschel

 


Knee-deep in a prie-dieu of compost,
I asked for wonder,
and pledged my attention,
hoping to lose
thought of myself
in the prayer of planting (for
both are acts of hope)—

seedlings sliding like prayer beads
through my hands what was once
a ditch-side rogue’s gallery elevated
to rockstar status in repair of the Earth:
Joe Pye weed, bergamot, Indian
blanket, rue, aster, true blue
wild indigo, lead plant, blazing star,
columbine, Queen Anne’s lace, 
even lowly clover and thistle.
Turn, turn, turn; the time to pluck up is gone;
the time to plant our purpose under heaven.

To feel the thrum of life beneath my feet,
human rooted in humus
as in the beginning--
almost like stumbling across
God perambulating in an evening garden
leaving behind dewy footprints fresh from bestriding
the sea, pacing off its measure in refutation of Job;

To hear the ethereal
music of hillside pine needle overhead
propelled by wind, the choir 
of hummingbird and song sparrow bobbing
on risers of redbud to the overture of offstage thunder.

But now it has
come down to this:

God answers through
a single brave
monarch butterfly
fluttering by, the first
of the season (enticed by
suburban crewcut

lawns surrendered
and sacrificed as altars 
to milkweed), and by the once-
quotidian honeybee delicately
and now heroically paying homage,
sending salvations of salvia and soybeans nodding, merely
feeding a planet…

and we rejoice at the sight, remembering
when we fools thought them 
common
as a comma.

Here is our hope on the wing.




--This was first published at Episcopal Journal's Speaking to the Soul on August 18, 2022.

Thursday, August 11, 2022

Forest Sonnet, Whidbey Island: Speaking to the Soul for August 11, 2022



(For a friend in grief,
for the assurance of resurrection )

 

 

Now, no matter, child, the name:
Sorrow's springs are the same.
No mouth had, no nor mind, expressed
What heart heard of, ghost guessed:
It is the blight man was born for,
It is Margaret you mourn for."

     --from “Spring and Fall,” by Gerard Manley Hopkins



Here Sorrow springs and newborn Spring sorrows;
Their grief resolves in fiddleheads tomorrow.
The mournful poet sees the greening leaf
and vaults ahead to autumn's parting grief....

An anticipatory grief, so-called.
Here last year's leaves lie trodden, branch scraped-bald
From winter's remnant grip. But see, as Spring
Flushes first rosy throat, as thrushes sing

God's glory! Still, larks chirruping, skimming
The winds arise from southern vales, brimming
Their blessings upon the restive, waking Earth.
The forest floor will testify that birth

Sings from subsidence, converting death
God's gravid Spirit-- resurrection's breath.




--This was first published at Episcopal Journal's Speaking to the Soul on August 11, 2022.

Sunday, August 7, 2022

Stars and Bars: Sermon for Proper 14C




This weekend, we celebrate the baptism of young Will Ross, the infant son of Sean and Cary, baby brother of Elliott. Baptism is a time of great joy, a time of commitment, of expanding the circle of the community, of welcoming the newest member of the Body of Christ into a life of joy, love, worship, and compassionate service as a disciple of Jesus. Alongside Will and his family and godparents, we commit ourselves once again to renewing our commitment not just to Christ but to each other and to the Ross family. It’s a glorious time of new beginning and of celebrating not just a new life, but the hope, joy, and beauty we image for him and his beloveds throughout his life, and for all his beloveds.

It is, indeed, a glorious time for new beginnings, a time of wonder.

God knows many of us need a good dose of wonder and amazement to bring us light and life. Wonder and amazement helps us see beyond the stresses and distractions that can cause us to forget our belovedness, our rootedness in the kin-dom of God.

We DO live in a time of wonders, after all. Just a couple of weeks ago, on July 11, the James Webb Space Telescope transmitted its first pictures back from Earth from its own spot orbiting the Sun 930,000 miles from Earth. One of the first images it transmitted was of a cloudy area known as “The Cosmic Cliffs” in the Carina Nebula. (1)

The image is dotted with spectacular six-pointed stars against a midnight blue and black backdrop. A gossamer curtain of red, orange, and rust colored clouds hangs across the bottom 2/3 of the image, and hundreds of stars of various sizes shine out of and through the veil. The image practically pulsates with light and life, giving the appearance of movement. And indeed, this is a place where, even better than in Hollywood, stars are born. This area is a veritable star nursery out on the edge of our own Milky Way galaxy about 7600 light-years from Earth.

This incredible photograph immediately brought to mind one of my favorite paintings—The Starry Night, painted by Vincent Van Gogh in 1888. Van Gogh painted this painting in the small town of Saint-Remy de Provence while housed in an asylum there. The sky was the one visible from his east window. He then added a cypress tree on the left edge of the painting, and part of the town only visible from another perspective to anchor the lower part of the painting. And of course, over the town, the stars and the moon pulse and vibrate with a vitality that draws the viewer’s eye directly into painting.

Apparently, I am not the only person who associated these two images in my mind, because someone has actually taken the painting and the image from the telescope and superimposed them upon each other. The result is astonishing. (2)

And come to find out, scientists agree that Van Gogh’s iconic masterpiece, from a period of personal turbulence in his life, also reflects the turbulence of molecular clouds like that in the Carina Nebula, the churning birthplaces of stars. And so, for the first time ever, I am about to quote from Physics magazine in a sermon. As they recount it:


A student at the Australian National University, Canberra, [James] Beattie studies the structure and dynamics of molecular clouds—the birthplaces of stars—whose churning eddies often make him think of the Dutch painting. He recently put that resemblance to the test with help from Neco Kriel, a student at Queensland University of Technology in Australia. Using techniques developed to analyze the patterns of simulated molecular clouds, the duo compared art and reality, finding that both display the same turbulent features. While it may only be a happy coincidence that Van Gogh’s sky contains star-related patterns, the presence of turbulent motifs is common in paintings, likely due to the abundance of turbulent phenomena in our everyday lives. (3)


Looking only with his naked eye—but most importantly, the eye of his imagination, Van Gogh captured not only an evocative representation of his own inner anxiety and hope; he also depicted a quality of the heavens above us that can currently only be seen by use of powerful telescopes. It truly is miraculous!

Here, truly, we have an example of art imitating life. Perhaps we need that reminder. For many of us, after all, we also live in turbulent times. In just the few days since NASA posted that image of the Cosmic Cliffs, the Midwest and Kentucky has been inundated with severe storms and floods, while the West, under its years-long drought, continues to burn and even cause fish kills, all while the reservoirs that make life possible there begin to empty out. We’re still in the midst of the COVID pandemic, washing over us wave after wave after wave. The economy can’t seem to make up its mind as to whether these are the best of times or the worst of times. Turbulence, indeed.

And it is in this situation that perhaps we can hear anew the gospel message Christ gives us in today’s reading from Luke. Sadly, our lectionary skips over the verses in between this week’s and last week’s reading. Because they would help center us even more fully in the message Jesus is giving us, I want to remind you of them, and not just because they include one of the Rev. Shug's favorite images.

Here’s what we missed after last week’s parable of the rich fool:

Jesus said to his disciples, ‘Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat, or about your body, what you will wear. For life is more than food, and the body more than clothing. Consider the ravens: they neither sow nor reap, they have neither storehouse nor barn, and yet God feeds them. Of how much more value are you than the birds! And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? If then you are not able to do so small a thing as that, why do you worry about the rest? Consider the lilies, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin; yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, how much more will he clothe you—you of little faith! And do not keep striving for what you are to eat and what you are to drink, and do not keep worrying. For it is the nations of the world that strive after all these things, and your Father knows that you need them. Instead, strive for his kingdom, and these things will be given to you as well. (Luke 12:22-31)

As someone who could probably medal in the Olympics of worrying, these verses have always been very helpful to me. The verses we then heard in our gospel reading a few moments ago reinforce this missing passage.

So let’s look at the assigned verses for this week. Once again, like last week, the topic is priorities and the trust that is required to have them in the right place.

One of the great cures for worry and despair, I have found, is action. And here Jesus gives three commands to his followers, that makes that point clear to all of us:

1. Do not be afraid.
2. Sell your possessions and give alms.
3. Be ready for action, with lamps lit for a journey even in the dark.

Remember the classic trio of faith, hope, and love (or charity)? Here they are again! Look at the commands again. In other words:

1. Have faith.
2. Have charity.
3. Have hope for God’s kingdom here on earth.

1. Have faith- do not be afraid. Did you know that the command “Do not be afraid” occurs 67 times in the NRSV version of the Bible, 49 times in the Old Testament alone? Fear prevents us from thinking and seeing reality and instead causes us to react instinctively. Once we are not afraid, we can ACT. Specifically, in this reading, Jesus reminds us of God’s providence and love for us. Following the command not to be afraid, three command verbs are specifically used: sell, give, make. Sell your possessions, give to the poor, make a purse for your REAL treasure—life in God here on earth, which you will have so abundantly you will need a purse for it.

2. Have charity. The action that flows from conquering our fear is to show our love for neighbor, which the kingdom of God will be grounded upon, by taking care of others. That’s what alms are for. Give to those who can give nothing back. Your reward will be from God for putting your priorities and actions in the right place. Once you have faith, act upon that faith by focusing on others, especially the poor. Just as the opposite of fear is faith and trust, the opposite of fear is being openhearted. This involves more than just charity, however, but a total realignment of the values human societies are all-too-often based upon. The foundation of God’s kingdom is justice and generosity.

3. Have hope. Be ready for “the master’s” return—here Jesus is talking about when the kingdom of God will be established here on earth and “he will come to judge the living and the dead.” We do not know when that will happen, but it is clear that we have a part to play in establishing it—we must act to bring it into being. This is another tie to the Hebrews reading, by the way—the audience was despairing that the Parousia—the return of Christ from Heaven discussed in the Baptismal Covenant and the Creeds—had not occurred yet. Thus this gospel reading could be addressed to the same audience there, as well.

Jesus seeks to encourage us in our continuing life of faith—encouraging us to not just grit our way through, to not just endure when times can seem difficult, but to see life, joy, and hope even in the midst of turbulent times.

Van Gogh’s painting can actually help us here, too. In order to create this luminous picture, he chose to creatively arrange the sections of his painting. The town at the bottom was not visible from the vantage point from which he painted—but he added it anyway. And down in the center, so often overlooked, is a glowing white ember of the village church—whose church bells soothed him so often during each day and night. 

But an even more significant choice Van Gogh made is in what he DIDN’T paint into the image—the bars on the window of his room in that asylum. He looked through them, and beyond them, in order to capture the throbbing turbulence and yet also hopefulness of that night sky. As we see from the picture from the Webb Telescope, that turbulence also represents new life, new stars, coming into existence.

We too, can spend our life looking at the bars, or looking at the stars. We can spend our life looking on a darkened town—or we can see the brave, resilient church that shines out day or night, a church that has no idea how much its mere presence alone encourages those who encounter it.

Jesus calls us to faith, to hope, to charity, to look for and embrace the wonders all around us. To embrace the wonder of a new member of the Body of Christ, as we will now do.

Amen.



Preached at the 505 on August 6 and at the 10:30 Holy Baptism on August 7 at St. Martin's Episcopal Church in Ellisville, MO.

Readings:

Citations:

1) Picture of the Cosmic Cliffs from NASA is found at https://www.nasa.gov/image-feature/goddard/2022/nasa-s-webb-reveals-cosmic-cliffs-glittering-landscape-of-star-birth

2) Van Gogh's The Starry Night Combined with the image of the Cosmic Cliffs found at : https://www.reddit.com/r/deepdream/comments/w4d916/starry_starry_night_nasas_cosmic_cliffs_from_the/

3) Article from Physics magazine quoted at https://physics.aps.org/articles/v12/45

Thursday, August 4, 2022

On the Jericho Road: Speaking to the Soul, August 4, 2022

Luke 10:25-37

 

 

On the Jericho road his luck ran out.
The air above the beaten track shimmered
and hissed like a snake. One sandal
lay in the center of the road, vanquished—the thieves
had left that, but all else was gone. 
Its forsaken foot curled up into the lip of the ditch,
disembodied. The man laid there,
arms flung wide, like a fledgling who had
fallen to earth; astonishment curtained 
his inert mouth. He floated
in a sea of dust, blood
pooling in tracks from his wounds. A buzzard
clasped a crag, sensing promise.

 

Perhaps the road would bring a savior.

Face toward Jerusalem, the priest 
placed each foot delicately after the other, and then
drew the drape of his robe
across his face at the sight, blanched,
and muttered charms to ward off evil
as he moved to the other side, eyes averted. 
A prayer of thanks rose skyward,
congratulating himself for his own righteousness,
to preserve him from such a fate. So too
the Son of Levi--he clasped his ewer by the handle,
suspicion of ambush and 
contempt seizing his heart like a fist,
edging away on his holy business.

A buzz of flies eddied in his wake.
The buzzard snorted humorlessly 
and shrugged. 
Not long now.

There was no one to see, they thought—
but behind the blue veil of sky
the stars blinked 
and spun in protest.

The sun mounted higher.
A Samaritan approached, 
fresh from shunning by the priest and Levite,
who’d made him walk around them.
But at the sandal he slowed, his donkey
shaking her head, skittish at tang and echo of violence
in her nostrils and ears, at the glare
that glowed off sunburned flesh. 
Her master crouched beside
the discarded sack of a man, 
leaking like a burst wineskin. 
He could still walk away.

 

                                    “Cursed be
the one who leads the blind
on the road astray, or distorts
the justice and mercy owed a stranger,”
the Samaritan murmured.
The donkey breathed the amens.

A trumpet blare of mercy
echoed in his soul’s chamber; the 
walls of the Samaritan’s heart lay in rubble.

With gentle hands he shifted the donkey’s load until
he found wine and oil,
anointing the wounds 
and cooling the stranger’s brow.

Like a mother, tenderly he drew 
the fevered body to his chest, arms beneath 
neck and knee, and raised his neighbor
from ditch to donkey delicately,
claiming the stranger as his brother, 
whose heartbeat was an obligation, whose face
so closely resembled his own,
and only the buzzard turned a baleful eye,
a grudging witness.


--This was first published at Episcopal Journal's Speaking to the Soul on August 4, 2022.

 

Sunday, July 31, 2022

The Circle Game: Sermon for Proper 13C



It’s funny—even if you don’t like math very much, we spend a lot of our time obsessing over numbers, from the moment of our birth, when eager parents start counting fingers and toes and other appendages to the number of birthdays we have had. Then there’s numbers about weight and height, which most of us also have a profound ambivalence about all our lives, either because they are too big or too small. Through childhood we long to be older, and somewhere around age 25 many of us want the aging thing to stop altogether.


In our economic lives, there are a lot of numbers we obsess over. For many people right now are deeply worried about inflation rates, which here in the US are currently at a gulp-inducing 9.1 percent. And that is bad, especially for older people on fixed incomes or people working at the bottom of the economic ladder. But this is not simply a national problem—and so if we look outside our own blinkered view, we see that a vast majority of the industrialized world is suffering from inflation—the UK’s rate is currently 9.4%, the European Union area is at 8.9%, Spain is at 10.8%, Brazil is at 11.89%, Russia is at 15.9%, Argentina is at 64%, and Turkey is at a whopping 78.62%. ANNUALLY. Yikes.

Same thing about the price of gasoline, which we Americans love to shriek about. However, we are actually quite blessed. At the start of July, the cost in the US was currently $1.30 per liter or $4.92 a gallon, and it has fallen since. Compare that to Canada, at $6.01 per gallon, Germany at $7.53, France at $8.59, the UK at 8.78, and the Netherlands at $9.61.

There’s even fascinating numbers about our spending habits. For instance, in 2021 the average American spent an estimated $2,130 a year on coffee, and $1,528 on the year’s cell phone bill.

Those are some astounding numbers. Then there are some fun numbers. 

I don’t know if you heard, but the Mega Millions lottery prize—which hadn’t had a winner since April 30 and apparently was finally won on Friday-- was at over $1.28 billion. BILLION. As in a thousand millions. And ONE ticket, sold just north of Chicago, had all the right numbers: 13, 36, 45, 57, 67 and a Mega Ball of 14. If the winner chooses a one-time cash payment they will receive $742 million dollars, otherwise it’s annual payments for the next few decades. The odds of winning are 302,575,350 to 1.

That’s a lot of numbers.

Even if you are normally a lottery agnostic, as many of us are, especially when we think about those odds, a lot of us like to have a little flutter when the pot gets that high. We daydream on what we might spend it on. But the fact is there is just no way you could spend that kind of money without almost killing yourself in the process.

Having lived in the smallest bedroom (WITH my Baby Sister) in a too-small house most growing up, it’s tempting to think about buying a bigger one, or buying one for your kids or for your mama. But then I remember something a wise man named George Carlin explained when I was a kid:

You got your stuff with you? I’ll bet you do. Guys have stuff in their pockets; women have stuff in their purses…. Stuff is important. You gotta take care of your stuff. You gotta have a place for your stuff. That’s what life is all about, tryin’ to find a place for your stuff! That’s all your house is; a place to keep your stuff. If you didn’t have so much stuff, you wouldn’t need a house. You could just walk around all the time.

 

A house is just a pile of stuff with a cover on it. You can see that when you’re taking off in an airplane. You look down and see all the little piles of stuff. Everybody’s got his own little pile of stuff.

 

So now you got a houseful of stuff. And, even though you might like your house, you gotta move. Gotta get a bigger house. Why? Too much stuff! And that means you gotta move all your stuff. Or maybe, put some of your stuff in storage. Storage! Imagine that. There’s a whole industry based on keepin’ an eye on other people’s stuff.(1)

Our readings this week warn about being more concerned about your stuff than about living a life with purpose.

Jesus does not always portray money as evil—look at how the Samaritan was willing to spend more than two full days’ wages tending to a helpless stranger a couple of weeks ago. The hoarding of money, however, he repeatedly condemns. And by the way, if you pay attention, parables with the phrase “rich man” in the Bible are almost ALWAYS criticizing not wealth, specifically, but a lack of support for the poor through the hoarding of resources by a very few.

There are numerous ways to use wealth for good—one of the easiest is using it to support your parish, your denomination, and various charities that are specifically engaged in trying to make the world a better place for all creatures great and small. But—and this is crucial in both Jesus’s time as well as our own current culture: Money can also be a way of lying to ourselves, telling ourselves that we are not dependent upon anyone but ourselves.

Take the rich fool in our parable. His love of money has cut him off from consideration of any other person, much less God. So he starts talking to himself. And even in his interior monologue, the rich fool only mentions himself. He uses the possessive pronoun repeatedly: “MY fruit, MY barn, MY goods, and even my SOUL.” 

Then who interrupts that interior monologue but God Godself, who calls the man a fool and declares that at this very night the man’s soul will be demanded of him. Once again here we get the language of debt, and it is GOD who is the creditor. We may hold our souls in life, but they are merely here on loan--they are God’s possession eternally. The rich fool has allowed his wealth to isolate him so much that the only person he has to lie to is himself. He has forgotten about anyone else and the obligations he bears to the world around him. He has also forgotten about God. 

This is far different from our discussion last week about a laborer praying for tomorrow’s bread today. That prayer is a prayer for enough. Especially on the heels of Jesus teaching us to pray for sustenance last week, this hoarding we see this week strikes a discordant note indeed. 


After all, the rich fool did not get this huge crop by himself—he has been blessed with fertile land and appropriate weather including rain. Note, in fact, that “the land produced abundantly.” Not the wealthy man. It is doubtful he did any of the labor to cause this huge crop, but far more likely others toiled for his profit while he is engaged in rumination on how to protect the treasure that has been handed to him.

One of the biggest practices Jesus sought to correct was an idea that one group of people was inherently better than another group of people simply by lofty ideas of one’s own personal purity. But holiness is not based on what you declare unclean, or lesser than, and then avoiding that thing. 


Holiness comes from what you give your heart to. Holiness comes from seeing yourself in a great interconnected circle with God and neighbor and dedicating yourself to the nourishing of good through seeing our obligations to others as blessings and opportunities to serve. Holiness comes from dedicating yourself to standing for others, and standing for God. Holiness comes not from greed, or miserliness, but through putting yourself at the service of empathy and love. It comes not from walling yourself off from the demands of love, but from embracing life and love with generosity and joy.

Holiness comes from giving your heart not to things, but to relationship with God and with each other. The rich fool has isolated himself from any consideration of others, and only thinks of himself. He prioritizes money and things over community, and over God. This is idolatry of the worst form.

Our lives are gifts. What we do with them should be a gift as well.

A week ago, the Newport Folk Festival was held in Newport, Rhode Island. This year’s festival was especially exciting, because for the first time in 20 years Joni Mitchell, a true songwriting and singing legend, was invited on stage by her young friend and fan Brandi Carlile, and actually performed a set. This is all the more remarkable because in 2015 Joni Mitchell suffered an aneurysm which nearly killed her and destroyed her ability to sing or play music. Through grit and dogged persistence--the same persistence that had helped her overcome being paralyzed with polio as a child--and through the love of a community of friends surrounding her, last week Joni Mitchell got up and sang some of her classic songs with help from a stage full of stars like Wynona Ryder and Marcus Mumford of Mumford and Sons. 

One of the songs that she sang was one that I loved as a child called The Circle Game. It talks about the changes a child goes through growing up from infancy to adulthood. 





There are numbers in this song: ten, sixteen, 20 years spin by, and the child learns about the world the entire time. And the chorus goes like this:

And the seasons, they go round and round
And the painted ponies go up and down
We're captive on the carousel of time
We can't return, we can only look
Behind, from where we came
And go round and round and round, in the circle game.

Joni’s song is beautiful. But as I watched clips of her singing it, I saw the circle as something else—the circle of love and compassion that grounds us, centers us, and heals us when we have been told all hope is lost. I saw the circle as all of those people who she drew to herself with her beautiful songs, and who gathered over the years to help her heal and encourage her—many of them gathered with her on that stage.


As Christian disciples, we have a center to our circle—and that is Jesus. Jesus reminds us that what is important is not how much wealth or possessions we have, but how much we engage with putting what we have to use for the good of our friends, families, churches, neighbors, and communities. How much we look after the least of those around us. That’s where true richness lies.

Jesus calls us to see the Circle of God’s kingdom in our lives, and to make that our priority. To treasure each other, and to treasure what we can do to promote God’s kingdom, God’s justice, and God’s boundless compassion and mercy for those around us. To make the circle bigger and bigger until everyone is included.

Let your life, and your resources, build the circle of God, and watch the joy rise up in your life. That’s the greatest gift of all.


Readings:

Hosea 11:1-11
Psalm 107:1-9, 43
Colossians 3:1-11
Luke 12:13-21


Citations:

1) George Carlin, Monologue about "Stuff," at YouTube, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MvgN5gCuLac 

2) Video from Newport Folk Festival, July 24. 2022.

Thursday, July 28, 2022

The Stone of Witness: Speaking to the Soul, July 28, 2022



Joshua said to all the people,
“See, this stone shall be a witness against us;
for it has heard all the words of the Lord that he spoke to us…
 "- Joshua 24:27a

 



This pale stone from St. Columba’s Bay
had lain beneath pilgrim feet for a thousand years before
singing its way to my notice; its delicate web of
fine green tracings draws the eye into the stone, its heft
surprising for a marble-cool thumbprint. Glossy
and silky to the touch, it bears witness

to the caress of tides and the melancholy
wandering of saints. What prayers has it heard
from all who have passed this way—what prayers
can I whisper to it as it slides between my fingers?

Two billion years it tumbled
to the ebb and flow of windswept tide.
From its holy home it now resides
in my pocket most days, a traveler and thus a stranger,
honed by the caress of the sea.

 

And now I recognize the toddler wisdom
in filling one’s pockets
with treasures from the ground: they witness
to the loving embrace of this Earth
carrying us tenderly around the Sun, grounding us
in wonder and awe, bearing testimony
to the holiness arching up beneath our feet.

Sunday, July 24, 2022

Praying from the Inside Out: Sermon for Proper 12C

(1)


You know, there are times when it is hard as a preacher to decide which text calls out to be preached.

This week is not one of those times.

I mean-- whew! Did you get a load of that passage from Hosea? Hmmm.... preach about a prophet being forced to make his life into performance art to make a point about his people's unfaithfulness-- and that word "whoredom" smacking us right in the face? No thank you.

Then, our epistle, and 15 years as a middle school teacher finding out that kids confused circumcision with sterilization tells me to back away from that one too. Nope.

So it was rather easy to settle on the gospel today, with its topic of prayer. Because I have found that, no matter how many times we talk about it, prayer is one of those things that can be very hard, and cannot be investigated enough. Because there's a lot of difficulty around prayer.

As I look over this pericope in 2022, I have to be honest: there are times that I just feel too tired, too worn out, too overwhelmed to pray. I may be exhausted, or feel spiritually dry. I’m not in the right headspace, or heart space. I don’t have the right attitude or discipline.

That’s why it is important to remember that we never pray alone. As disciples, the mere fact that we are here together in worship reminds us that prayer is a communal act. The fact that we Episcopalians speak of “common” prayer reminds us how foundational it is to always remember that our prayers join with others. To remember that our prayer with others includes everything from our opening words, through hymn singing, through hearing the word of God, through the prayers of the people, through sharing the peace with those who are visiting as well as those we know. Our common prayer continues through the Great Thanksgiving, in which we recount God’s saving help to humanity all throughout history; through sharing in the bread and wine; all the way through to the dismissal and then continues right out into the street and the rest of the week. 

All of that is prayer, and it is prayer done as a community.

Jesus doesn’t say we have to have any of the right attitudes, the right disciplines, the perfect words. I think of this prayer by St. Teresa:

Teach me, if Thou wilt, to pray:
If Thou wilt not, make me dry.
Give me love abundantly
Or unfruitful let me stay.
Sov’reign Master, I obey.
Peace I find not save with Thee.
What wilt Thou have done with me? (2)

So maybe we are brought up short when we want to pray, and so we look for a formula, which Jesus here provides. But Jesus teaches us here that to pray is to first acknowledge that God is God, and we are not. In other words, we start with praise. Praise that God is holy, from God’s very name outward. 
In fact, Jesus starts with reminding us that God is in intimate relationship with us. Jesus calls God Father, and we can too-- or Mother, or Friend, or Lover, or Beloved, or Creator. If any of those words has negative meaning for you, use another. Just remember that God loved you before you even knew the word "God." Jesus even points out that God always wants us to have good things, just like a loving parent wants to give their children eggs instead of snakes or scorpions.

And you know, I had an experience this week about that. I was getting into our pool, and just as I was getting ready to swim some laps suddenly saw something swim by and realized there was a snake in my pool. 


Let me tell you, I walked on water better than Peter ever did. I practically levitated outta that pool, and stood there gasping on the deck as this reptile took a victory lap in MY pool. And being the church nerd I am, I thought of this gospel passage and prayed for God to change that snake into an egg. But no such luck. I had to scoop the critter out myself and deposit him elsewhere. And sometimes our prayers remind us that we can't just ask God to perform magic tricks to get us out of confronting our fears and doing the dirty work. And after all, God loves that snake and much as God loves me.

Now, you will notice that the version we get here in Luke's gospel is pretty short, and has a lot of things missing that we are used to saying. And there are dozens if not hundreds of versions of this prayer just in the English language alone. I am convinced it s a good thing to occasional pray one of those other versions from time to time, and to sit down an examine the version we most often say, just to remind ourselves what is actually in there-- and what is not. To remind ourselves that words count.

The New Zealand Prayer Book (3), for instance, has an expansive version of the Lord’s Prayer, as one would expected from a province that seeks to reflect the cultures of three distinct groups of people. 



It has about 15-20 words just to take the place of that word "Father" that we get in our gospel. It even uses a trinitarian formation. I encourage you to look up this prayer and spend some time with it. Here's one thing that's interesting--How much of that prayer is praise? More than half of it. We get almost two-thirds of the way through that prayer before we ask God for anything. I think that is a wonderful reminder to us all, too, about prayer not just a wish-fulfillment.

Jesus reminds us that our purpose in following God is not to get God to do our bidding, but for us to surrender to God. One of the most beautiful hymns I still treasure from my childhood sitting next to my grandma in her Baptist church says it best:

All to Jesus I surrender, All to Him I freely give;
I will ever love and trust him; In his presence daily live.
I surrender all--- I surrender all
All to Thee, my blessed Savior, I surrender all. (4)

God’s kingdom coming means a time when we do not anesthetize ourselves to the suffering of others by clinging to a system that is designed to sort everything into a small category of winners and la large host of losers in various degrees. God’s kingdom is one where we don’t keep trying to get God to do our bidding, but we surrender with joy to God as our only sovereign, our Creator who continually calls us into living as if we really believed that we are made in the image of God—in the image of one whose wisdom and love sustains everything around us, throughout the universe and across time and space. God’s kingdom is built on our surrender, but it is joyful because, as this prayer teaches us, our entire lives are an edifice, either resilient or fragile. Our entire lives are an edifice, resilient and resplendent, if they rest upon trust in God.

For this prayer is a prayer of trust:

Trust that we have a real relationship with God. Trust that our relationship with God began before we even knew the word God, and that that relationship will continue even beyond our earthly lives.

Trust that God is our Maker, our Father, our Mother, Creator, Source, Friend, Lover-- the One who tenderly loves us each the best, whatever word that most means that to you. Think of it. Has anyone seen the images from the James Webb telescope the last few weeks? The marvels we can now see from this amazing universe made and sustained by God? And here's an even greater wonder: The same God who made each of those nebula and constellation and black hole looked around this amazing universe and decided the universe needs one of you just as badly. God loves us eternally-- and even plants the dust of stars within our bones and sinews.



We pray because we trust that God will sustain each of us. In giving us the bread we need today so that we may have strength tomorrow, that we may use that strength to help make God’s kingdom of love, mercy, justice and grace visible upon this beautiful Earth that, as our beloved, living home, sustains us and embraces us in each and every second of our lives.

Trust that God forgives us our sins. We may flinch at the thought of sitting down and really examining ourselves to see what sins we have committed, or supported with our silences. Or we may take account of our sins frequently, and feel the weight of guilt and shame. Yet, when we acknowledge that we have sinned, and determine to amend our lives and work to restore our relationships through honesty and responsibility, we find God’s forgiveness always there, cooling and soothing the parched walls of our shattered hearts.

And then notice what our translation says: Since we have been forgives our sins, we can forgive everyone indebted to us. What does it mean to consider a sin against us as a debt? I think this provides a precious insight into human nature. Don’t we consider that those who have hurt us owe us something—an apology, compensation, a period of grovelling? There’s a phrase that’s sometimes used when lauding someone who has done something heroic, like the delivery driver who ran into a burning home and rescured five children single-handedly. We often say we owe them a debt of gratitude. 

Reciprocally, if we trust in God as our ultimate home and heart, we can also use the gratitude we feel at God’s abundant grace to ourselves embody forgiveness and grace to others who have wronged us. We can pay off our debt of gratitude by paying that forgiveness forward. By doing so, we free ourselves from the chains or resentments and anger at the hurt we have endured, and we have once again taken seriously the obligation laid upon us by the blessing of being created in the image of God.

So why does Jesus have us end here in Luke’s version with praying not to be led to the time of trial? Well, if we have taken seriously the cataloguing of our sins and our clinging to old resentments and grievances, we already have a sneaking suspicion that a time of trial is something at which we most likely will fail. Just as we trust in God to give us the bread we need for today, we trust in God to not simply throw tests at us to see if we will pass or fail. One translation, the one that we pray at our main service each Sunday, actually asks God not to lead us into temptation. I always scoff at that line in my heart when we say it. Because if one thing is certain, it’s that we don’t need to God to lead us to temptation, we can find it just fine all on our own. See also the phrase: “The Devil Made Me Do It.” Thus, again here we are called to trust in God to offer us guidance and lead us aright when we ourselves wander into the quicksand.

Praying this prayer, then, is a prayer for strength to be soft where the world is hard,
To be strong enough to be forgiving and merciful where the world is merciless,
To be reflective of God’s abundant love and wisdom in a world that too often seeks to hit first rather than see the woundedness around each of us and offer good things rather than adding bad to bad, like offering a child a snake or a scorpion.

Praying as Jesus taught us is a reminder that there are actions which count as prayer, starting with listening. Sometimes, the best prayer of all is when we say nothing, but merely invite God into our hearts and into our lives. We don’t have to do all the talking.

Sometimes prayer is not merely in words at all. The beloved poet Mary Oliver started her poem “Six Recognitions of the Lord” with this observation:
“I know a lot of fancy words.
I tear them from my heart and my tongue.
Then I pray.”


Amen.



This was preached at the Saturday 505 Eucharist and the Sunday 10:30 Eucharist at St. Martin's Episcopal Church in Ellisville, MO, on July 23-24, 2022, the Seventh Sunday after Pentecost.


Readings:

Citations:
1) The Lord's Prayer in Catalan, wall hanging from La Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, my photo.
2) St. Teresa of Jesus, Works of St. Teresa, Vol. 3, p. 280.
3) From New Zealand Prayer Book: He Karakia Mihinare o Aotearoa.
4) Verse 1 of "I Surrender All," by Judson W. Van De Venter (1855-1939).
5) Image of the Southern Ring Nebula from the James Webb telescope, NASA/ESA found at https://time.com/6196675/five-james-webb-telescope-images-explained/
6) Mary Oliver, from Thirst, 2006.