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Holy, Good, and Peaceful

From my seat — 1B — I have an excellent vantage point when the power on the MD88 suddenly cuts off.

The pilot leans out of his cockpit window and yells down: “Can you hook us back up? You cut off our ground power!”

Meanwhile, I’m gratified to note that the aisle path lighting has in fact illuminated, showing the way to the exit.

The power comes back on, but the surge has fried a computer component. The pilot comes on the intercom to explain that it’s critical, and that maintenance is looking to see if they have one at the sprawling Detroit airport.

Cue the exasperated groans and cell phone calls to friends and family detailing the situation and spinning out the worst possible scenarios.

Turns out they do have the component close to hand, however, and maintenance actually gets it to us quickly. While they’re installing it and running the test routines, I can hear the computer voice in the cockpit saying, “Pull up! Pull up! Altitude!”

Since we’re on the tarmac, six feet above the ground, clearly the altitude warning is working properly.

When we pull back from the gate, 30 minutes after we were supposed to, the lead flight attendant comes on the intercom to say that our short flying time means we will make it to Kansas City just minutes after our scheduled arrival time.

So here we are at 30,000 feet, enjoying a drink and a snack, watching the sun go down on the starboard side of the plane, confident that the critical components are working, and a little impressed with the speed of the Delta maintenance crew at DTW.

“That this evening may be holy, good, and peaceful,” indeed.

Amen.

Know and Love, Love and Serve

Lord God, the light of the minds that know you, the life of the souls that love you, and the strength of the hearts that serve you: Help us, following the example of your servant Augustine of Hippo, so to know you that we may truly love you, and so to love you that we may fully serve you, whom to serve is perfect freedom; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

So to know God that we may truly love … so to love God that we may fully serve.

At St. Thomas, the parish I serve as deacon, the rector gives a children’s sermon at the 10 am Eucharist before he preaches to the congregation. Because Fr. Ralph was out of town last Sunday, I took a turn.

The children come up to the altar and we all sit on the steps together. They bring up a hatbox with a surprise in it, usually some kind of toy, and the game is that the preacher has to improvise a sermon on the spot.

This week the toy surprise was a dollar coin with Lady Liberty on the front, so we spoke for a minute or two about liberty and freedom and the symbols of our country that remind us of that truth. We also spoke about Jesus, who shows us an example of perfect freedom and loving service.

Augustine represents for the church the too-often competing strains of devotion and intellectual pursuit. He yearned both to know (that is, to intellectually comprehend) God and to serve the Lord Jesus. He also served the church in Hippo in northern Africa during a particularly difficult time in its early history when it was undergoing persecution and dealing with the problem of believers, particularly bishops and priests, who had turned away from the faith under duress and were seeking to return.

The love of God, Augustine understood, could not be diminished by the failings of people. The quaint language of our Thirty-Nine Articles reminds us “Of the Unworthiness of the Ministers, which hinders not the effect of the Sacraments” (BCP 873).

“Faith seeking understanding” is a motto often attributed to Augustine, and our prayer today reminds us that using our minds to study both the Scriptures and the world around us can deepen our love for God, that learning to love God and to understand the world will lead us to serve others more than to judge them, and that in loving service we will find our freedom.

Receive Thankfully and Follow Daily

The bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh. (John 6:51)

In the Collect for Proper 15, which we have been praying all week, we thank God that he gave his “only Son to be for us a sacrifice for sin, and also an example of godly life” (BCP 232).

Jesus himself outlines the terms of that sacrifice in his discourse on bread (John 6). The crowd has trouble overcoming their revulsion at his message about eating flesh and cannot understand his meaning.

Saul, too, is revolted by the message. His distaste for the early followers of the Way leads him to persecute them, “breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord” (Acts 9:1).

Even after he is struck down by a vision and brought to Damascus, Saul still has a lot to learn. Jesus tells Ananias in a vision, “I myself will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name” (Acts 9:16).

When our thoughts are consumed by the wrongs of others, when we wish ill upon those we dislike, we are like Saul and still have a lot to learn. We still have to learn to be thankful rather than angry. We still have to learn to follow Jesus in the way of the cross, “the way of life and peace” (BCP 99), laying down our lives for the sake of others.

If we let Jesus show us the way, then perhaps “something like scales” will fall from our eyes, too. With Saul, we will see how much we must suffer — how much we must set aside our own anger and self-will — for the sake of Jesus’ name.

Within that suffering, however, we trust that we will be granted “grace to receive thankfully the fruits of his redeeming work, and to follow daily in the blessed steps of his most holy life” (BCP 232).

Going Out and Coming In

The Forward Movement Daily Prayer Anytime site is a real treasure, especially on days like this which I am spending in transit.

Today Psalm 121:8 caught my attention:

The LORD shall watch over your going out and your coming in, *
from this time forth for evermore.

Does your sense of trust in God’s presence seem clearer when you think of the present moment or when you think of eternity?

According to Parker Palmer, many people of faith are “functional atheists” — that is to say, in the moment their actions are indistinguishable from those of a nonbeliever.

Practicing daily prayer, the regular Offices of the Church, is one time-tested way to bring awareness of God’s presence closer and closer to the present moment.

Whether you read them in a book or follow a link during a midday break, use the Offices to keep yourself “functionally faithful” and to inform your actions throughout the day.

From Far Off or From Near

Now those who were scattered went from place to place, preaching the word. (Acts 8:4)

Would there even be a Church if Saul hadn’t started persecuting the followers of the Way?

Jesus had complained earlier to his disciples and to the people listening to him that “you search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they who testify on my behalf. Yet you refuse to come to me to have life” (John 5:39-40).

It may not have been exactly comfortable for the early apostles after Jesus’ death and resurrection, but at least they were all together in the temple, praising God and sharing everything with each other.

Saul’s persecution changed everything, however, and scattered the apostles out into the world. Without that push they may never have discovered that God’s power is made perfect in our weakness. They might never have discovered that Jesus was also with “those who are far off” as well as “those who are near.” What happened after the persecution? “The apostles at Jerusalem heard that Samaria had accepted the word of God” (Acts 8:14).

We can always stand to learn the lesson again. Our study of the Scriptures and the life we share in Christ is not about comfort, but about preparation. We want to be sure that when we meet Jesus where he already is, we will recognize him. As he said himself, we can’t do that if our nose is stuck in a book, even if it is the Good Book.

Jesus is waiting to give life to everyone, if we will come to him. Whether we come from far off or from near, Lord, “open our eyes to see your hand at work in the world about us” (BCP 372).

Consider Well the Mercies of the Lord

“When Jesus saw him lying there and knew that he had been ill for thirty-eight years, he said to him, ‘Do you want to be made well?'” (John 5:6).

Reynolds Price writes, in his essay on John in Incarnation: Contemporary Writers on the New Testament, that “many readers see the sign chiefly as a demonstration that Jesus is Lord of the Sabbath. They are partly right, but surely at the expense of sufficient notice that, in this his first face-to-face cure, Jesus heals instantly and without request …. This man can and does, when and where he wills, for his own inscrutable reasons. His power exists for himself, as evidence” (47).

There is an element of sheer fact about Jesus and his power in the Gospel of John. The spiritual challenge comes after the healing, in this episode and in the healing of the blind man in chapter 9.

“Later Jesus found him in the temple and said to him, ‘See, you have been made well! Do not sin any more, so that nothing worse happens to you'” (John 5:14).

You can now stand on your own two feet. What are you going to do about it?

“Consider well the mercies of the Lord.” We are delivered from the conditions that we use as excuses — “there’s no one to help me into the pool, and besides, everyone cuts in line” — and set free to stand before God. We are the evidence of God’s power working in the world when we live into that freedom.

Price goes on to say that the story John tells can be “pressed further down, to a sentence — the force that conceived and bore all things, came here among us, proved his identity in visible acts, was killed by men no worse than we, rose from death and walked again with his early believers, vowing eternal life beside him to those who also come to believe that he is God and loves us as much as his story shows” (64).

Consider well the mercies of the Lord, indeed. What will you do with this freedom? How will your life become evidence that God “loves us as much as his story shows”?

As Clothing You Will Change Them

In the beginning, O Lord, you laid the foundations of the earth,
and the heavens are the work of your hands;

They shall perish, but you will endure;
they shall all wear out like a garment; *
as clothing you will change them,
and they shall be changed. (Ps. 102:25-26)

From the vastness of interstellar space to “this fragile earth, our island home” (BCP 370) we look into the heavens and at the earth around us and see both change and stability at work.

Everything changes. Stars are being born and dying all the time, the universe is expanding, the sea and the land push against each other, fold and erode. Plants, animals, microbes, and people are all being born and dying all the time. The entire creation is in a state of change.

And yet everything stays the same. The universe is full of stars, and has been since the beginning. The sea and the land teem with life. Plants and animals participate in a cycle of life that is steady and lasting.

We name the reason for that endurance “God.” We name the creator of what is, “God.” We name what will be after what is now, “God.”

At your command all things came to be: galaxies, suns, the planets in their courses, and this fragile earth, our island home.
By your will they were created and have their being. (BCP 370)

Stephen, Full of Grace and Power

The word of God continued to spread; the number of the disciples increased greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests became obedient to the faith. (Acts 6:7)

In the sixth and seventh chapters of Acts, it becomes even more clear that the “service” that Stephen and the first deacons performed in the community was as much to do with preaching as with physical works of mercy. The Greek-speaking followers of the Way were being neglected in the table fellowship, which included opening the Scriptures to understand how Jesus fit into God’s plan of salvation.

Stephen is hauled before the council on trumped-up charges because of his preaching, not because he distributed food to widows. In the reading appointed for today, Stephen is just getting started rehearsing the history of God’s saving presence with Israel; he’s laying the groundwork for the big finish to his sermon, naming Jesus as the promised Messiah, which won’t come until Monday. And you thought the sermons in your parish were too long!

Stephen is a preacher warming up to his subject, building up his argument, bringing us along with him until we are ready to hear a new word, until we are ready in fact to meet the Word himself.

There’s a reason deacons promise at ordination “to study the Holy Scriptures, to seek nourishment from them, and to model your life upon them” (BCP 543). The nourishment we receive from our daily prayer and study of the Scriptures we offer back to “those among whom we live, and work, and worship” so that all will be fed by Jesus, the true Bread of Life.

So stick with Stephen for the next few days — the grace and power that shine through him and his preaching are meant to show you the glory of Jesus, “the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God” (Acts 7:56).

Saint Mary the Virgin

The heaven of heavens is the Lord’s
but he entrusted the earth to its peoples. (Psalm 115:16)

The readings and canticles for this morning, the Feast of Saint Mary the Virgin, give us glimpses into the lives of several people who were trusting and became trustworthy.

In the Old Testament reading, Hannah, formerly childless, sings to God after giving her son Samuel to serve in the Temple. She sings of God’s power: “He raises up the poor from the dust; he lifts the needy from the ash heap” (1 Sam. 2:8). She trusts that “he will guard the feet of his faithful ones,” and she entrusts her son to his service.

We respond with Canticle 16, appointed for Major Feasts like today, which is a song about another son. Zecharaiah sings to God in joy that he has witnessed a miracle — the birth of a son to his wife Elizabeth — and that his son, John the Baptist, will have a special part to play in announcing the coming of the Messiah. Zechariah trusts in God’s promise “to shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death, and to guide our feet into the way of peace.”

The Gospel reading recounts Jesus’ first sign, or demonstration of his power, at a wedding in Cana. His mother Mary nudges him into action, forcing his hand when he is reluctant to intervene. “There’s no wine,” she says. “So what?” he says. “Do what he tells you,” she says to the servants. Put on the spot, Jesus performs his first miracle. Mary trusts that the time is right for her son to step onto a larger stage, even though he was just coming to a wedding with his friends.

In Canticle 21, the Te Deum, we get another glimpse of the larger stage on which God is acting.

You, Christ, are the king of glory,
the eternal Son of the Father.
When you became man to set us free,
you did not shun the Virgin’s womb.

God’s purposes will be fulfilled with and through the “peoples of the earth,” people like Hannah and Zechariah, like Mary and like us, people who trust in his direction and become trustworthy by participating in his work.