The plumb-line, the cross, and the circle

A parishioner reminded me earlier this week that I sometimes get political in my sermons. That was before two black men were killed by police and before five Dallas police officers were killed and seven others wounded by a lone shooter, a veteran who had served in Afghanistan. This morning I promise not to get political.

First of all, I am not a black man. And I am not a police officer. And I am not a military veteran. And I do not want to presume to speak about their frustration or their suffering or their families’ grief.

Instead I must offer some prophetic and pastoral words today. I am a Christian and an ordained minister, and the words of the Scriptures are directed at me, at us. It is my responsibility not only to heed the words of the Scriptures but to help you heed them, too.

We cannot judge,

            we must not justify ourselves,

                        but we can act like neighbors.

But first, let me start with a joke.

The Plumb-Line

I spent six hours driving back and forth from Charlotte through the mountains of western North Carolina for a business meeting on Friday. As I drove, I couldn’t help thinking of George Carlin’s observation that “anyone who drives slower than you is an idiot, and anyone who drives faster than you is a maniac.”

This is precisely the kind of “judgment” that the Scriptures condemn, the judging of other nations as good or bad, the judging of other religions as right or wrong, the judging of other people as worthy or worthless.

The prophet Amos shows us, in a vivid image, why our judgment is flawed.

He sees in a vision “the Lord standing beside a wall built with a plumb line, with a plumb line in his hand … then the Lord said, ‘See, I am setting a plumb line in the middle of my people Israel; I will never again pass them by’” (Amos 7:7-8).

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A plumb line, for those who may not know, is an ancient tool to help builders make their work straight and level. The heavy weight at the end of the line was originally made of “plumb,” or lead (that’s why the chemical symbol for lead is Pb).

But that’s not the point; the point of Amos’ vision is that only God’s judgment is perfect, and when he holds a plumb line up to humanity everything is crooked in comparison.

Every nation, even our beloved America, is crooked.

Just last Monday – it hasn’t even been a week! – we prayed on Independence Day to the “Lord God Almighty, in whose Name the founders of this country won liberty for themselves and for us, and lit the torch of freedom for nations then unborn: Grant that we and all the people of this land may have grace to maintain our liberties in righteousness and peace.”

Righteousness and peace? What a crock! What a self-righteous, violent, chaotic nation we are proving to be, if we could only see straight!

Just like the king of Israel, our nation won’t stand for judgment. And too often, our denominations and we religious leaders do just as Amaziah did and turn away the prophets for disturbing the peace. “Go somewhere else with your protests and activism; stop calling into question our righteousness and peace.”

Just like the priests of Israel, compared to God’s plumb-line, every denomination, every religious leader, is out of true. We offer our “thoughts and prayers” again and again and again, but we don’t get political in our sermons because we don’t want to rock the boat or offend anyone. Or we do get political in our messages, teaching (whether we mean to or not) that power and politics and success are what really matter.

But every person, every single one of us, is at least “half a bubble off plumb,” too. And here’s where it gets personal. What’s really happening when God’s plumb line hangs beside us is that we are ashamed. We see ourselves clearly, and we are ashamed.

Reflecting on “Dallas and American Contradictions,” Alexandra Petri wrote in the Washington Post on Friday that,

Being told that you aren’t living up to your own standards is an uncomfortable thing. …. [T]hat is an unpleasant thing to discover about yourself. So a lot of the anger in America now resembles the anger that you have at your mirror. ‘This isn’t what I look like,’ you say. ‘I look much better than that.’ It hurts to realize that the only reason you thought you didn’t have wrinkles was because the lighting was poor. But it’s not the fault of the light.

We cannot judge,

            we must not justify ourselves …

The Cross

We see ourselves clearly, and we are ashamed. The plumb line just hangs there, but we feel like we are being sentenced. Because we are ashamed, we try to deflect attention away from ourselves, to justify our behavior.

The lawyer came back at Jesus with a second question “wanting to justify himself.”

That’s an important “hinge word” to pay attention to. Because our behavior – our living up to our national ideals or our keeping the commandments – has been called into question, we are ashamed and we try to justify ourselves.

“Our nation is not so bad.” At least America is not a warlike country invading other sovereign territories at will and destroying people’s homes and cities.

“Our political candidate is not so bad.” You know, the other ones misbehaved, too.

“Our religion is not so bad.” At least we’re not preaching violent fantasies and subjugating women and minorities.

So much of what we say and share on social media serves this self-justifying need – “I’m not so bad.” Other people are much worse.

At least I’m not like other people.

Does that sound familiar? It should, because it was the punch line of another parable Jesus told, the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector.

He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other.” (Luke 18:9-14)

Justify is a hinge word because it has two meanings – we justify ourselves because of our shame, but the Gospel tells us our shame has been lifted and we have been justified by the grace of God through Jesus’ self-offering on the cross.

Paul writes that

while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. Indeed, rarely will anyone die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person someone might actually dare to die. But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us (Romans 5:6-8).

We must not try to justify ourselves – we must not try to take away our shame by deflecting attention onto others. We ourselves are the ungodly, the sinners for whom Christ died on the cross.

But do you hear the good news? We cannot justify ourselves, because in Christ we are justified by grace, through faith.

In the Advent season, the priest prays right before Communion that “we may without shame or fear rejoice to behold Christ at his coming.” Christ’s self-offering on the cross is the hinge that turns our self-justifying into justification.

The cross, standing stark and upright, takes up the plumb-line of God’s judgment and transforms it into the symbol of God’s grace, erasing our shame and fear.

We cannot judge,

            we must not justify ourselves,

                        but we can act like neighbors.

 The Circle

One of the loveliest prayers in the Book of Common Prayer is this prayer for mission:

Lord Jesus Christ, you stretched out your arms of love on the hard wood of the cross that everyone might come within the reach of your saving embrace: So clothe us in your Spirit that we, reaching forth our hands in love, may bring those who do not know you to the knowledge and love of you; for the honor of your Name. Amen. (BCP 101)

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What could you accomplish if you could act without shame or fear, without the need to judge others, without the need to justify your actions?

You could accomplish just what the Samaritan man did in Jesus’ parable. You could stop focusing on yourself as better than anyone else, you could stop justifying your action (or inaction), you could see someone hurting and stop and help them.

The “Good Samaritan” is not actually the focus of today’s parable – even the way we talk about it shows that we miss the point. The Samaritan man focuses on the one in need, cares for him without judging him, and doesn’t have to spend any time justifying his inaction.

The Samaritan man – and us, if we follow Jesus’ invitation to “do likewise” – doesn’t waste any time deciding whether the man is worthy or deserved what he got, or should have given the robbers what they wanted. He simply binds his wounds and takes him somewhere safe.

My wife recently had tears in her eyes as she described to me how one father of an Orlando shooting victim refused to claim his son’s body — he hadn’t known his son was gay until he was killed — and how a local Seventh-Day Adventist Church offered to hold funerals for victims of the massacre who had no other place to go. She grew up in the SDA church, and had given her denomination up years ago for their judgmental attitudes, but here they showed that their focus was on the victims and their hurting families.

What Jesus says to the lawyer is that inheriting eternal life has nothing to do with judging others wrong. God’s plumb line makes clear your own crookedness.

It has nothing to do with justifying your actions by deflecting attention onto the sins of others; the cross casts its long shadow on your own sinfulness, at the same time taking away your shame and freeing you to act without fear.

Inheriting eternal life, according to Jesus, has to do with lessening the suffering of the people in your path. You don’t have to care for everyone, but you do have to respond to those who cross your path who are hurting.

Whether people meet you online or in person, on social media or in social settings, you create the circle of Christ’s outstretched arms of love; you bring people into Christ’s saving embrace.

Alongside the cross and within the circle of Christ’s love, the new plumb-line hangs as straight and true as ever: Did you lessen the suffering of the people you encountered today?

We cannot judge,

            we must not justify ourselves,

                        but we can act like neighbors, for God’s sake.

Go, and do likewise. Amen.

Keep your clothes on | Sermon for Proper 7C

 

The men were roughly clothed, generally in coarse blue cloth, very carelessly put together. The women came in with their invariably noiseless, gliding step, in very wild garb; they were shrouded in blankets, their heads closely covered with various wrappings ….

Susan Fenimore Cooper, daughter of the famous novelist, shared these impressions in a series of articles called “Missions to the Oneidas” in The Living Church in 1885 and 1886.

I spent this past week at the Episcopal Tri-History Conference in Oneida, Wisconsin.

Parishioners at Church of the Holy Apostles and members of the Oneida Nation were our very gracious hosts as participants from the three historical societies of the Episcopal Church met to consider the encounters between Episcopal and Anglican churches and the indigenous people of North America.

Despite the appreciative portrayal of writers like Susan Fenimore Cooper, the tragic history of those encounters is more about European and American colonists’ attempts to “civilize” indigenous people or, frankly, to take their land, send them to distant reservations, and transport their children to residential boarding schools in order to “kill the Indian and save the man.”

The archivists and historians in the US and Canada have become painfully aware how church and state conspired over the last three centuries to make indigenous people and their cultures disappear.

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I wonder if the prophet Elijah standing by the entrance to his cave on Mt. Horeb appeared like the Oneida women, wrapped in his mantle and shrouded in the “sound of sheer silence.”

He, too, was being threatened with disappearing – Jezebel and Ahab had marked him for death after he prevailed over the false prophets loyal to the king and caused rain to fall after three years’ drought. He had run forty days and nights into the desert, far from his home.

But God gave Elijah a command: Stand on the mountain. Wrap your mantle around you and do not be swept away by the wind, the breaking rocks, the quaking ground, the fire, the noise.

Elijah must not fear those who seek his life, but he is to go back across the desert and fulfill God’s mission.

Keep your clothes on, and keep speaking truth to power.

+ + + + +

What a powerful jolt Jesus got as he stepped off the boat after crossing the Sea of Galilee!

“What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I beg you, do not torment me!”

The poor Gerasene man’s many demons shouted in his head and caused him to shout at Jesus.

Jesus gives the demons a command – leave this man alone – and they rush out into a herd of pigs, leaving the man sitting at the feet of Jesus, “clothed and in his right mind.”

Though the townspeople are even more freaked out than they had been by the naked man living in the tombs – and he and they both probably wish he’d leave with Jesus – the man is sent home instead to share the good news of what God has done in his life.

Keep your clothes on, and keep sharing good news with your family and your neighbors.

+ + + + +

Paul had neighbors all around the Mediterranean, and Galatia must have been a fairly cosmopolitan Roman province, where “Jews and Greeks, slaves and free,” men and women lived and worked.

He really struggled to keep the members of his congregation there from going back to the old Law, though, to rules and regulations about who was in or who was out, what food was right to eat, what days were appropriate to observe as festivals.

Paul also struggled, according to Edward Blair, against “the Jewish nationalism of the time, which was emphasizing separation from Gentiles and strict loyalty to everything Jewish, not only in Palestine, but in the Roman world as well” (Blair 297).

His people’s focus on legalism and political separation, their disunity, is disheartening to him. “I am afraid that my work for you may have been wasted,” he says.

“As many of you as have been baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female, for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”

Keep your clothes on and act like you are one in Christ Jesus!

+ + + + +

Bishop Mark MacDonald is now the National Indigenous Bishop of the Anglican Church of Canada.

In his keynote address at this week’s conference, Bishop Mark spoke about the resilience of Native American communities like the Oneida Nation and like many of the First Nations among whom he ministers in Canada.

The Oneida, for example, though they sided with the colonists in the Revolutionary War, lost their land in New York state to their neighbors and had to relocate to Wisconsin. Here in Wisconsin, the same New York fur traders and logging companies who had driven them from their land tried to do it to them all over again.

Nevertheless, over the past 200 years, the Oneida Nation has rebounded in many ways. On the civic side the Oneida Nation is a leader among Native American communities, and on the religious side Owanah Anderson, the former native missioner of the Episcopal Church, praised Holy Apostles as “the Canterbury Cathedral of Native American ministry.”

But Bishop Mark went on to talk about a harder truth. Despite centuries of policies enacted by church and state meant to dispossess them of their land, wipe out their language, and eliminate their religion and culture, the conversion of indigenous people to Christianity has been widespread. Some 80% of First Nations people in Canada are baptized, Bishop Mark said, a much higher percentage than their “more rapidly secularizing” neighbors.

He suggests that about 5% of indigenous people practice their traditional religion, and about 5% practice “normal” European Christianity. The broad middle – most of whom are baptized, remember – make their way in the world as best they can, and are to be commended for their resilience in the face of efforts (even by fellow Christians) to make them disappear.

The resilience of communities like the Oneida, Bishop Mark says, “reeks of resurrection. It smells like the Gospel!”

The resilience of others in the face of hardship and death may smell like the Gospel, but that Gospel often comes shrouded in clothes that look strange to us.

+ + + + +

Some keep their clothes on and act like they are one in Christ Jesus, but they’re wearing beaded necklaces, praying to the Great Creator, and singing in their native language.

Some keep their clothes on and share good news with their neighbors, but we find their their political views troubling.

Some keep their clothes on and speak truth to power, but their club music is loud and unfamiliar (and we don’t know the dance steps).

Some keep their clothes on and share good news with their neighbors, but their stories of mental illness and stigma, recovery and healing make us uncomfortable.

Some keep their clothes on and act like they are one in Christ Jesus, but they make us aware of our own biases and cause us anxiety when they behave differently than we do.

+ + + + +

It’s in the differences between us, and the resilience with which we all deal with the situations we live in, that the Gospel will be found if we have eyes to see – to see past what Mother Teresa calls “Christ in all his distressing disguises.”

It’s in the power of the resurrection over everything that threatens to make anyone disappear that we recognize we have all “come within the reach of Christ’s saving embrace” (BCP 101).

We all came up out of the same waters of baptism, we were all reeking of the oil of anointing, and we all put on a new baptismal robe.

Let’s embrace our enemies, our neighbors, even our fellow-Christians – as strange as they may seem – like Christ Jesus would and does embrace them! Let’s make sure that we are looking for resurrection rather than looking to make anyone disappear.

That’s what it means to keep our clothes on and clothe ourselves with Christ. Amen.

 

 

 

Featured image: Oneida woman ca. 1900 from Sarah Orne Jewett Text Project.

Truly yours when it impels you to action

Therefore contemplation, even at its highest, dearest, and most intimate, is not to be for you an end in itself. It shall only be truly yours when it impels you to action: when the double movement of Transcendent Love, drawing inwards to unity and fruition, and rushing out again to creative acts, is realised [sic] in you. You are to be a living, ardent tool with which the Supreme Artist works: one of the instruments of His self-manifestation, the perpetual process by which His Reality is brought into concrete expression.

This week, I am attending the Tri-History Conference on historical encounters between the Episcopal and Anglican Church and indigenous people, being held at Oneida (Green Bay) in the Diocese of Fond du Lac.

At the end of the Eucharist last night at Church of the Holy Apostles (pictured) we stood to sing the Te Deum in the Oneida language, a practice predating their arrival in Wisconsin in the 1820s.

At Morning Prayer today we commemorated Evelyn Underhill, the English writer and mystic whose book Practical Mysticism was published at the beginning of World War I.

The excerpt above, which we read during the office, really struck me for two reasons.

Not an end in itself

Perhaps responding to the charge that promoting contemplation in time of war would lead people to quietism, Underhill writes that “contemplation, even at its highest, dearest, and most intimate, is not to be for you an end in itself.”

Various presenters at the conference noted the strong tradition of hymn-singing among the Iroquois, and the Oneida Singers graced us with several lovely hymns.

Dean Stephen Peay of Nashotah House says that French Jesuits noted the singing of the Iroquois predating their arrival. Laurence Hauptman (citing Michael McNally’s book on Ojibwe singing) suggests perhaps 80% of the Oneida were baptized because of the hymn-singing even more than the claims of the institutional church.

Our praise of God is not for ourselves alone. We sing the Lord’s song in order to draw others not only into the worship and praise of God, but also into the life and ministry of the Body of Christ.

A living, ardent tool

Underhill writes, “You are to be a living, ardent tool with which the Supreme Artist works.”

Discipleship is about modeling our lives on the life of Jesus, becoming what Underhill describes as an “instrument of God’s self-manifestation.”

That “perpetual process” of becoming a disciple is renewed every day as we pray that we may be clothed in Jesus’ spirit, “reaching forth our hands in love” (BCP 100).

The specific shape of our discipleship will take many forms — from collecting oral histories to maintaining archives to serving at a meal program or coordinating disaster relief. Some will serve in public ways or in church settings, others in private or at home.

At all times, though, our work is best done with a song in our hearts.

A Prayer for Mission

Almighty and everlasting God, by whose Spirit the whole body of your faithful people is governed and sanctified: Receive our supplications and prayers which we offer before you for all members of your holy Church, that in their vocation and ministry they may truly and devoutly serve you; through our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

 

A kingdom of priests in the meantime

But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ– by grace you have been saved– and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the ages to come he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God– not the result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life. (Ephesians 2:4-10)

We are what he has made us

In the Daily Office is we read the Scriptures and respond to them. We do not simply listen to the words of God day after day; we speak back to God in words spoken by Christians over the centuries.

So this morning we do not just read Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, where he reminds them that they are “alive together with Christ,” a new creation in Christ by God’s grace.

We also respond to God, saying “Splendor and honor and kingly power are yours by right, O Lord our God.”

That response is in Canticle 18, one of the two appointed for Friday mornings, and it helps us understand why we offer praise.

  • God created everything that is
  • By his will they continue to exist
  • Christ — the Lamb that was slain — has redeemed us for God
  • That redemption is for all people on earth, who rightly offer to God “worship and praise, dominion and splendor, for ever and for evermore.”

We come to understand that through God’s grace we are now the “kingdom of priests” that the Revelation to John describes (Rev. 5:9-13).

Created in Christ Jesus for good works

But we exercise our royal priesthood not just by praising God in the Daily Office, or at the Eucharist, or in our private prayers.

We are a kingdom of priests “created in Christ Jesus for good works.”

Whatever those good works may be, from organized programs to individual acts of charity and kindness, we Christians offer them to people in order to communicate hope.

Our Christian hope comes in large part from knowing that we fit into a larger story of meaning and purpose — what the Collect for Fridays calls “none other than the way of life and peace” (BCP 99).

We serve those who are suffering by entering with them into their experience, and we remind them by our actions that their “way of the cross” is not the end of the story. This is the wisdom of recovery work, for example. We witness to God’s power in our lives by the example of our own suffering and healing.

We serve those who struggle by helping them see how everything is shot through with God’s presence, even when it seems darkest and even if the glimpse we offer is faint.

In the meantime

Ascensiontide, as the Church calls the time between Ascension Day and Pentecost, is an “in-between time” for the first disciples.

Jesus has left them — he “ascended far above the heavens that he might fill all things” (BCP 226) — but it’s not the Day of Pentecost yet, and the disciples haven’t yet received the power of the Holy Spirit that he promised.

Many people around us live in that “in-between time” all the time.

They have lost a spouse or a friend or a job, or they themselves feel lost, and they cannot imagine life any differently. They may have no sense of promise for new relationships or they may feel powerless over their circumstances; they have lost hope.

Like Jesus, we minister most effectively when we enter into people’s lives and show them what transformation can look like. In his incarnation Jesus entered into our human lives, and by his dying and rising he shows us the divine life we are created for.

We are a kingdom of priests in the meantime. We praise God for keeping his promise and we perform the good works we are created for in order to give God’s people (that is, all people) the promise of hope.

Almighty God, whose blessed Son our Savior Jesus Christ ascended far above all heavens that he might fill all things: Mercifully give us faith to perceive that, according to his promise, he abides with his Church on earth, even to the end of the ages; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, in glory everlasting. Amen. (BCP 226)

Undefended, powerless, but kept in God’s love

Today’s collect for the Third Sunday in Lent is pretty serious.

Almighty God, you know that we have no power in ourselves to help ourselves: Keep us both outwardly in our bodies and inwardly in our souls, that we may be defended from all adversities which may happen to the body, and from all evil thoughts which may assault and hurt the soul; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

It lays out the fear that paralyzes our bodies and neutralizes our souls and in it we pray that we may be not just defended, but kept in God’s love.

We get one thing right in this prayer. We ask for two things that we’re never going to get. And we get from God something “more than we can ask or imagine.”

So, the first thing we get wrong …

 

That we may be defended from all adversities which may happen to the body

Then the LORD said [to Moses], “I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed, I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them from the Egyptians, and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey, to the country of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites. The cry of the Israelites has now come to me; I have also seen how the Egyptians oppress them. So come, I will send you to Pharaoh to bring my people, the Israelites, out of Egypt.” (Exodus 3:7-10)

Moses’ first efforts, unfortunately, made Pharaoh angry and he punished the Israelites by cutting off their supply of straw but requiring they make the same number of bricks each day. So their work was doubled and their bodies further harmed.

Ultimately, however, the LORD redeemed their bodies from slavery and the whip but immediately subjected their bodies to the harsh conditions of the wilderness.

The whole congregation of the Israelites complained against Moses and Aaron in the wilderness. The Israelites said to them, ‘If only we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread; for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.’ (Exodus 16:2-3)

Reminds me of the “ex-leper” in Monty Python’s Life of Brian, who complains that Jesus has healed him: “One minute I’m a leper with a trade; the next minute, my livelihood’s gone! Bloody do-gooder!”

“There’s no pleasing some people,” Brian replies.

“That’s just what Jesus said, sir!”

Ex-leper

We’re wrong to believe that we will be defended from bodily harm, just as we’re wrong to think that we’ll be freed from “evil thoughts.”

 

That we may be defended from all evil thoughts which may assault and hurt the soul

Jesus is being cross-examined by the Pharisees and lawyers in front of a growing crowd when someone asks him: “Oh yeah, what about those Galileans who were killed in church?”

He retorts, “Do you think you’re better than they were?”

The Galileans killed in the Temple by Pilate’s soldiers, their blood mingling with their sacrifices … or how about the eighteen people killed in the Siloam tower collapse?

Jesus asks, “Do you think you’re better than they were?”

Or how about the nine people who died during the tornadoes this week?

Do you think you’re better than they were?

Or how about the 41 people injured and 25 people killed by gun violence this week in Iuka MS, Orlando, Kalamazoo, Houston, Hazelwood MO, Daytona Beach, Glendale AZ, Hesston KS, and Belfair WA? (I had to Google to be sure I didn’t miss any.)

Do you think you’re better than they were?

Or how about people on food stamps or unemployment?

Do you think you’re better than they are?

Or how about Bernie supporters? Trump supporters?

Do you think you’re better than they are?

These are perfect examples of what recovery programs call “stinking thinking,” the thought that this time (for me) it’ll be different. This time (for me) the rules don’t apply. This time (for me) the consequences won’t be so severe.

What a crock! And we know it, but we’re afraid to admit it. We’re no better than anyone else, and in our blindness we may in fact be worse.

But we do get one essential thing right in our prayer.

God knows we have no power in ourselves to help ourselves

Moses gets it right.

“Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God …. and Moses asked “Who am I that I should go?” (Exodus 3:6, 11)

christ-in-gethsemane-p

Paul continues in the same vein, using the Israelites in the wilderness as an example to the Christians in Corinth:

Nevertheless, God was not pleased with most of them, and they were struck down in the wilderness. Now these things occurred as examples for us, so that we might not desire evil as they did. Do not become idolaters as some of them did; as it is written, “The people sat down to eat and drink, and they rose up to play.” We must not indulge in sexual immorality as some of them did, and twenty-three thousand fell in a single day. We must not put Christ to the test, as some of them did, and were destroyed by serpents. And do not complain as some of them did, and were destroyed by the destroyer. (1 Cor. 10)

Who are we to say we’re any better than our ancestors in the faith, any less likely to stray into temptation, any less likely to complain, any less likely to put Christ to the test?

“There’s no pleasing some people,” Jesus says.

“These things happened to them to serve as an example,” Paul writes, “and they were written down to instruct us, on whom the ends of the ages have come. So if you think you are standing, watch out that you do not fall.”

 

Almighty God, keep us both outwardly in our bodies and inwardly in our souls

We are not defended from bodily adversity; we are not defended from “stinking thinking,” and we have no power in ourselves to help ourselves.

Even knowing God’s name doesn’t work like a magic spell or give us special powers.

Richard Rohr suggests that even God’s name, I AM WHO I AM – or YAHWEH – is not a real name at all, but the sound of one’s breathing. (Things Hidden: Scripture as Spirituality)

No wonder Moses doesn’t seem convinced. Instead of a name to convince the Israelites and Pharaoh, all he gets is the sound of his own breathing.

[IN] YAH

[OUT] WEH

Our chests tighten in fear [IN], and we exhale in relief [OUT].

We suffer and die [IN] just like anyone does, but we are given a name and a promise [OUT] to sustain us.

We struggle against oppression and violence [IN], even as we recognize it in ourselves [OUT].

I think I’m standing [IN], but I’ve got to watch out that I don’t fall [OUT].

We are not magically defended from bodily harm; we are not righteously defended from “stinking thinking,” and if we’re honest we’ll admit we have no power in ourselves to help ourselves – at least not any better than anyone else does.

But “in falling and in rising, we are kept ever precious in one love,” as Julian of Norwich reminds us.

Falling rising Julian

And that’s what we get right in this morning’s Collect. We are kept ever precious in God’s one love.

We are undefended, like all of God’s followers have been,
but our bodies are kept in one love.

We are undefended, like all of God’s followers have been,
but our souls are kept in one love.

We are powerless to save ourselves,
but we ourselves are kept in one love.

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[IN] Keep us, [OUT] Almighty God.

[IN] Keep me, [OUT] O God.

[IN] O God. [OUT]

From envy, hatred, and malice

Again [Jesus] entered the synagogue, and a man was there who had a withered hand. They watched him to see whether he would cure him on the sabbath, so that they might accuse him. And he said to the man who had the withered hand, “Come forward.” Then he said to them, “Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the sabbath, to save life or to kill?” But they were silent. He looked around at them with anger; he was grieved at their hardness of heart and said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” He stretched it out, and his hand was restored. The Pharisees went out and immediately conspired with the Herodians against him, how to destroy him. (Mark 3:1-6)

Green-eyed envy

“They watched him … so that they might accuse him.”

Each year, as Lent approaches, many acquaintances and friends announce that they will leave Facebook and Instagram, Twitter and Snapchat. They plan to take a social media fast.

Though I do not choose to do that myself, I can certainly understand the appeal.

Too often, and especially (it seems to me) among religious types, social media turns into a platform from which to pounce on people’s “mistakes” and “errors” — the things others believe or do that go against the grain.

The Rev. Scott Gunn, executive director of Forward Movement and cofounder of Lent Madness, wrote a poignant post this week titled Practicing Our Faith Online, in the wake of many toxic responses to the news of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia’s death.

He muses, “Maybe we Christians can, and must, do a better job of practicing our faith online. Sometimes I’m the one who needs the reminder that Jesus calls me to practice a love that is not always easy.”

How easy it was for the Pharisees to “watch Jesus … so that they might accuse him,” rather than looking for ways to help their neighbor who suffered.

How easy for us to do the same, unless we soften our gaze (and our hearts).

Hardness of heart

“They were silent.”

Even (perhaps especially) when Jesus draws their attention to the man with the withered hand, the Pharisees refuse to see anything but Jesus’ error.

They won’t even entertain the spiritual question he poses — “is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the sabbath, to save life or to kill?” — because they are sure he is wrong.

“The opposite of faith,” says former Bishop of Edinburgh Richard Holloway, “is not doubt, it is certainty.”

What are you so certain about that you refuse to see another point of view?

What or who are you certain God hates?

Malice in the palace

“The Pharisees went out and immediately conspired with the Herodians against him,
how to destroy him.”

What are you willing to do when you are secure in the knowledge that you’re right?

The Pharisees, who taught religious purity and scrupulous adherence to the Law, went out and made common cause with the supporters of the puppet king Herod (and by extension, the Roman colonizers who kept him in political power).

This week, we saw another spectacle unfolding online — Liberty University president Jerry Falwell, Jr. taking the side of a political candidate and speaking out against the very simple statement of Pope Francis in response to a reporter’s question:

A person who thinks only about building walls, wherever they may be, and not building bridges, is not Christian. This is not in the Gospel. As far as what you said about whether I would advise to vote or not to vote, I am not going to get involved in that. I say only that this man is not Christian if he says things like that. We must see if he said things in that way and in this I give the benefit of the doubt.

As James Martin, SJ writes in the Washington Post, the Pope’s remarks were quickly misinterpreted, not least by the chattering hordes on social media but by Christian leaders like Falwell.

The New York Times reported that:

Jerry Falwell Jr., the president of Liberty University and a supporter of Mr. Trump, said that the pope had crossed a line.

“Jesus never intended to give instructions to political leaders on how to run a country,” Mr. Falwell told CNN.

Jesus did not give instructions to political leaders; that’s certainly true.

What he did was announce the kingdom of God, heal on the sabbath, and turn religious people’s certainty upside down. He made them so angry that they couldn’t see straight.

And that’s what we Christians are called to do, too, if we are to be Jesus’ followers.

We shouldn’t be surprised, though, if we get into trouble, first with the religious people around us and then with others who are certain that we are wrong to do good, to save life, to heal.

Good Lord, deliver us

Was it only a week ago — the First Sunday in Lent — that we chanted the Great Litany before the Eucharist?

From all blindness of heart; from pride, vainglory, and hypocrisy; from envy, hatred, and malice; and from all want of charity,
Good Lord, deliver us.

From all inordinate and sinful affections; and from all the deceits of the world, the flesh, and the devil,
Good Lord, deliver us.

From all false doctrine, heresy, and schism; from hardness of heart, and contempt of thy Word and commandment,
Good Lord, deliver us.

Jesus stands before us in the assembly, about to do something inappropriate and upsetting.

How soft is our gaze? How hard is our heart?

Are we reaching toward his healing power — actually doing something to help the hurting people around us — or turning our backs, putting up a wall between us and Jesus’ obvious error?

From envy, hatred, and malice … Good Lord, deliver us.

 

Daily Office Basics – The Prayers

In the final video in the series, we look at the various prayers which conclude the offices of Morning or Evening Prayer. (If you’re like Fr. Ralph Osborne, the rector of my parish, you’ll also be glad to know you can now binge-watch the whole series.)

For Christians, the Lord’s Prayer holds pride of place as the prayer that Jesus himself taught his disciples, so the third section of the office starts there.

Suffrages, which are sort of like miniature Prayers of the People, remind us to pray for “the needs, concerns, and hopes of the world.”

Then a series of three collects forms the most distinctive part of this section — a Collect of the Day (the Sunday or feast day we celebrate), a Collect of the Day of the Week, and a Prayer for Mission.

The collects, like the sentences at the beginning of the office and the antiphons for the Invitatory Psalm, also serve to give a seasonal flavor to the office, which is otherwise very much the same every day.

The Daily Office is the public prayer of the Church, so the suffrages and collects are a bit formal, but they give us language to speak to God day by day, week by week, season by season.

Finally, we give voice to our own personal intercessions and thanksgivings, and we can choose from a number of lovely prayers and closing sentences to use at the end of the office.

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I hope this series of Daily Office Basics videos has been helpful to you, and I welcome your comments and suggestions if there are things you’d like to learn more about in future offerings.

The series will reside at dailyofficebasics.graceabounds.online, where you will also find the downloadable resources mentioned in the second video.

I am grateful to the Ven. Michele Whitford, content manager of Grace Abounds, and to Zachary and Nicholas Whitford, who filmed and edited the videos. I also commend the Theodicy Jazz Collective for their lovely album Vespers; their music is a prayer in itself.

The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit, be wth us all evermore. Amen.

 

Daily Office Basics – Lessons and Canticles

Today’s video is number four in the Daily Office Basics series.

We have looked at the origins of daily prayer in the Christian church, spent a few minutes finding our place, and begun praying the office by reciting Psalms.

Here we turn to the second part of the office, the Lessons and Canticles.

In the Episcopal Church, the schedule of readings for the Daily Office has you do a lot of course reading. That is, you will often read a “chapter” (a short selection) of the same book in the Bible day after day until you’re through with that book.

Over the two-year lectionary cycle, you basically read the majority of the Old Testament once, the whole New Testament twice, and the Psalms every seven weeks.

Separate from any other studying I’ve done, that means that by praying the Daily Office for just over 23 years now I have read the Old Testament about 23 times, the New Testament 46 times, and each of the Psalms about 171 times.

Today we try to demystify the Daily Office lectionary and this middle portion of the office so that you feel more comfortable soaking yourself in Scripture in the context of daily prayer.

The last video in this series will look at the specific Prayers that conclude the office.

All of the videos, as well as the downloadable resources, will make their home at dailyofficebasics.graceabounds.online.

 

Daily Office Basics – The Psalms

Today’s installment of Daily Office Basics could also be called “Beginning the Office,” as we consider the various ways to begin Morning or Evening Prayer.

The Daily Office is the public prayer of the Church, not just prayers for us to say at home, so the opening sentences are options to give a seasonal flavor to the service.

The Confession of Sin is optional, too. Some people choose to say it only occasionally, others once a day at Evening Prayer. For me, the Confession is not optional but critical, so I say it every time I pray the office.

The introduction to the Confession in Morning Prayer contains a perfect little statement about what we are doing when we pray the Daily Office:

Dearly beloved, we have come together in the presence of Almighty God our heavenly Father, to set forth his praise, to hear his holy Word, and to ask, for ourselves and on behalf of others, those things that are necessary for our life and our salvation. (BCP 79)

Once we’ve looked at the opening sentences and the Confession of Sin in this video, we get to the proper start of the office, the Psalms with which we “set forth God’s praise.”

In the next two installments, we’ll look at the Lessons and Canticles in which we “hear God’s holy Word,” and then we’ll talk about the Prayers in which we “ask, for ourselves, and on behalf of others, those things that are necessary for our life and salvation.”

 

Daily Office Basics – Finding Your Place

In this installment of Daily Office Basics, we get down to specifics:

How do I know what page I’m supposed to be on in the Book of Common Prayer?

What Bible lesson am I supposed to read this morning? This evening?

How do I remember where I am when I keep flipping back and forth in the book?

All of these questions (and more) will be answered here.

As you watch the video, you’ll see that we are preparing you to start praying the offices next week, starting on the Monday after the First Sunday in Lent.

Also, we have provided nifty bookmarks for your prayer book and Bible, as well as a guide called “Praying the Daily Offices.”

All of them are free to download at dailyofficebasics.graceabounds.online.

Praying the Daily Office is simple, but it’s not self-explanatory. I hope this video will help you find your place and feel more ready to begin.