Sermons

Saturday, July 31, 2010

Cooling It

It is sweltering here. We've had a very hot summer - many, many days in the 90's. Bad air quality, too. I'm wishing I were in Maine, on the water, either on a boat or looking at boats. Instead I spent a couple of hours this afternoon in a hot gymnasium with no air conditioning feeling queasy, bloated, and exceptionally lethargic and wondering where my stamina and conditioning went.

Actually, I know where it went - it may be true that when one is 22, one can neither get much exercise or regularly eat right and not suffer any ill effects or get really out of shape. This is not true for someone my age, but I keep forgetting my age. I keep forgetting I need to work at it now. And so it comes upon me, suddenly and yet often, that I cannot expect to have stamina and be in shape without working at it. I try to stay out of the heat but still end up doing too much sitting and not enough moving. It's as if the heat seeps into my bones even while I'm inside. I don't know why this keeps surprising me, but it does. I just keep getting out of whack and then remembering that I have to do something to keep from getting out of whack now. Somehow I need to find out how to coordinate my inner young self with my outer old body. I'm sure this is also connected to my issues with sleeping.

As it turns out, great minds think alike. I was awake during the night and finally gave up trying to get back to sleep and got up and turned on the computer, only to find in my inbox a reflection Barbara Crafton sent out just minutes before called Jesus Napped. (You can read it here.) She notes that she has learned to embrace the middle aged insomnia thing and even learned to take naps, even though she was not a napper before. She said she used to think she could trust her body to do anything she wanted it to do. Ah! I know that feeling. She said she learned to embrace napping as a spiritual discipline. She said she now knows her body has needs of its own.

Food for thought.

Friday, July 30, 2010

Little David

This is one of the two side stones at the 7th century cross of St Patrick in Cardonagh on the Inishowen Peninsula on the northern part of County Donegal, Ireland. It shows King David and his harp. The other side of this stone shows a warrior, which could also be David or it could be Goliath. Or just "a warrior."

David, of course, had a checkered history, as did most of the great figures in the Hebrew Bible. (The New Testament is also filled with flawed figures with whom Jesus hangs out anyway.) Just goes to show with what God has to work - or with what God chooses to work. I think both sentiments are appropriate. Most of us have checkered histories, too. The two-faced stone with harpist and warrior is a concrete rendering of the dichotomy, not only of David but of all of us. Although in the "Onward, Christian Soldiers" sense (a sensibility I am long past admiring), the warrior might not signify sinner to everyone. It's probably hard to render "adulterer" (among other things) into a stone slab.

Maybe it's appropriate just to say that all of us have more than one aspect to our personhood and that some of those aspects are less admirable than others - but God loves us anyway.

There is a gospel song called "Little David Play on Your Harp" - many of us have heard a children's choir sing it. So whenever I look at this picture, I think of that song. Click here to hear a great recording (on vinyl) by the Fisk University Jubilee Quartet from the 1920's (bonus track: "Shout All Over God's Heaven"). I tried in vain to find a YouTube video of James Taylor performing his version, which is my favorite because it knocked the socks off the children's choir version I first knew, but you can hear a sample on Pandora here.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Timing

Let me plan a church service any day, even a very complicated feast day or something with multiple sections to the procession and special lections and prayers, rather than planning a move. At the moment, there's still the lease to be signed, the moving date to be chosen, the moving company booked, in that order. Except that the moving company would like to have some time to plan - what if they can't move on the day the move is planned to take place? Things are being moved 425 miles - which takes all day to drive, plus there's the loading and unloading time. And a meal and gas stop. And the moving in times are very limited - two hours at a time twice a day five days a week but not on Thursdays or Sundays. And the lease can't be signed until the place is ready, which is not until next week. And of course there is the date at the other end - the move out date - but the movee is ready to go now!

At least there's not a whole lot of stuff being moved! And it will all be nice when it's over and we'll get to decorate.

Lord grant me patience and flexibility and let me not be willful about things. (And also it would be helpful if all these dates and times line up so that someone isn't out on the street at one end or another, but of course I'm not praying for that, just idly wishing.)

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Surprise

So last evening as we were leaving baby's house, which is not exactly in the country, but is not in town either, a large doe was standing on the side of the road. We stopped the car and it bounded across the road and into someone's yard, a neighbor who lives three or four houses down from baby.

Lots of people have small gardens in their yards, and I figured the doe was headed for one. But when we got even with the house, we stopped the car to look, and there was the doe, eating out of the bird feeder. There was a nice garden just fifteen yards away. It appeared that the doe made a beeline for the feeder, though; this appeared to be a regular ritual.

Day before yesterday, there was a fairly large groundhog in baby's back yard. The yard has three apple trees in it, and the groundhog was munching on an apple that had fallen on the ground. This despite the presence of a large dog in the yard. However, when I came out and started throwing the ball for the dog, the groundhog scuttled away in that shuffling gait groundhogs have, through the fence and under a neighbor's garden shed.

Animals seem to be able to adapt to having people around and even taking advantage of that fact. They often find ways to coexist peacefully with us and take advantage of the food, water and shelter we provide. Once our son saw the cover we have on our outdoor gas grill moving around oddly and went out and lifted it up to find three opossums fighting for space underneath so they could keep out of the rain. I see signs of all kinds of animals that drink out of our tiny 3x5 pond - including that cat, who has a nice pottery water bowl of her own in the house. And nearly everyone has hosted a bird who built a nest inside a bike helmet or hanging plant.

Peaceful co-existence seems to come pretty naturally to animals. I'm not so sure about people, though - but I do wonder, does the family put out extra bird seed for the deer?


Morning Prayer for Those who Travel

O God, our heavenly Father, whose glory fills the whole
creation, and whose presence we find wherever we go: Preserve
those who travel; surround them with your loving care; protect them from every danger; and bring them in safety to their journey's end; through
Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Somewhere Else

I've spent the last several weeks - a couple of months, really - wanting to be somewhere else. And now I'm seeing a trend.

We took baby to the pool this morning. This is a really fancy indoor pool with a lazy river/current path, whirlpool, hot tub, lap lanes, deep end with water slide, and shallow end with brightly colored "water works" area - short slides, fountains with showers large and small. Baby was mesmerized by the water sprouting out of tall blue pipes and the constant action of falling water in that area. But when we took him over there, he was less enchanted. In the end, he liked "swimming" in the deeper water rather than playing in the shallow area.

I'm reading Pilgrim's Progress - re-reading is the appropriate word, although I don't remember that much of it, having read it more than 40 years ago. I remember certain things - like the Slough of Despond - but mostly I feel as if I am reading it for the first time. Christian, and all those whom he encounters who can be counted among the good guys - Evangelist, for example - continue to focus upon the place where they are not now. First get through the gate. And then when you get there, focus on the next part of the journey, focus on being somewhere else and just endure where you are now as best you can. Where Christian is now, at every turn, seems to be fraught with temptation to go down a side path and thus away from salvation. Now the burden is heavy, but then it will be taken away. Now the path is difficult but then it will be easy. Now is not where you want to be because paradise is somewhere else.

I know that for many people, "heaven" is a goal that may be the only thing keeping one going in this earthly life. There is a "better place" where our loved ones now reside, where we will rejoin them, where the things that are beautiful and true exist.

But at the same time, such an orientation denies the goodness of this life, of where we are now. The focus on being somewhere else keeps one from seeing the beautiful and the true where we are now. For Christian, enjoying the beautiful in this place was just too tempting - such enjoyment might lead one (such as the character Pliable) to just go home and enjoy oneself now and let the possibility of heaven pass away. Too much enjoyment of this earthly life might cause one not to be willing to work for the Kingdom.

I don't really hold with that, although I see how it can be comforting and can be a good thing. It is not an either/or, though; it's much more complicated than that. I think God is with us here and now - that creation is good and life is beautiful. And yet to live with God eternally must be something like ecstasy. And so we must live in the tension of now and later, of here and somewhere else.

Morning Prayer

O merciful creator, your hand is open wide to satisfy the needs of every living creature: Make us always thankful for your loving providence; and grant that we, remembering the account that we must one day give, may be faithful stewards of your good gifts; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, for ever and ever. Amen

(BCP 259)

Monday, July 26, 2010

Food for Thought


Time away from home is refreshing, even if you are not doing all that much. Different scenery, different climate (even the slightest change for the cooler is welcome, and it is delightfully un-humid here compared to home), different dishes to eat off of, different schedule. Ahhh.

Today we walked around downtown Roanoke. Not for long, as it was hot, and our baby companion was not up for a long slog around town - and really, neither were we. There is a very manageable farmer's market and we walked past many tomatoes and squash and beans and potatoes; our own purchase was of a couple of bottles of local wine, one red and one white. Downtown is very mellow here, unlike our downtown at home, and so it was easy to stroll and stop and look and take a few photos.

After dinner at home (with the wine, which was good), baby was fussy, but I took him outside and we sat in the chair on the deck and watched the clouds and listened to some birds and I threw the rubber dog toy about sixty-five times to the dog who finally collapsed under the deck, panting. Baby just lay back and relaxed, chewing on a toy, for quite a while. I just relaxed, too, despite the dog toy throwing time. In between throws, which I could easily accomplish while reclining in the deck chair, I watched the clouds and the birds, too, and felt the weight of a warm, smooth (and somewhat carrot encrusted) baby against my chest, nestled against the crook of my arm.

There is something about the change in scenery that allows one to readjust, to relax a little, to change the interior fussiness for all of us, adults and babies alike. (And maybe dogs, too, but I really don't know how dogs work.) To let go of whatever that thing was that was bothering us, nagging at us, keeping us up at night.

Ahh.

Morning Prayer


Water That Does Not Come Bottled
(On reading Psalm 104)

Creator God, we celebrate you:
you make springs gush forth in the valleys;
they flow between the hills,
giving drink to every wild animal,
the wild asses quench their thirst.

You send rain and water the earth, it springs to growth,
we eat and are satisfied,
we thank you and easily push back from the table.
In our comfortable plenty,
we notice drought here
and famine there, the work of human hands.
The lack seems remote from us,
but in solidarity we register the loss
and the fear,
and the death.

We count on water and rain and growth and bread.
We count on your regularities,
but then we look for peace but find no good,
for a time of healing, but there is terror instead.

We do not expect failed rain,
or failed bread,
or failed peace,
or failed healing.
The failure lies deep in the fabric of our common life.

We turn away from that self-destructiveness . . . back to you.
You - Creator, beginning and end,
first and last.
You - seedtime and harvest,
cold and heat,
summer and winter.
You - whose patience we try.
You - whose sovereign will for good
overrides our capacity for self-destruction.

Look to this world of need: restore,
recreate,
enliven,
give rain,
give food,
give peace.
For there is no other source.
None except you in your sovereign reliability.


(Walter Brueggemann, Prayers for a Privileged People, 171)

Sunday, July 25, 2010

A sermon about prayer

Occasionally I look at the parish profiles of churches that are looking for a new rector. These parishes list in order the duties and responsibilities they wish their next priest to focus upon. Sometimes the top section is about preaching, sometimes about church growth, sometimes about administration.

But one of the duties and responsibilities I see fairly often somewhere on that list is this one: teaching people to pray.

Now these are Episcopal churches, and of course you all know that we pray a lot in church whenever we gather for worship. We pray from the beginning -with the opening collect-to the end, as we offer thanksgiving after receiving communion. We pray through the prayers of the people, the prayer of confession, and the whole of our Eucharist is a prayer, from The Lord be With you to the great Amen. There is even a prayer within a prayer in the Eucharistic prayer - the prayer we heard Jesus teach his disciples today, the Lord’s Prayer. The one that assumes that we are in community with one another and God, that assumes we need forgiveness, that asserts our dependence upon God for all that we need. The prayer that many people know by heart even if they haven’t been to church in forty years.

During the week, those who try to keep the daily rhythm of prayers going in the monastic tradition also pray the offices - morning prayer and evening prayer and maybe also noon prayer and compline.

And that’s just our Prayer Book tradition. Some folks also practice contemplative or centering prayer, which is resting in silence before God, or lectio divina - a way of praying the scriptures. People use prayer beads and rosaries and walk the labyrinth.

Bookstores, including the one at the Cathedral of St Philip, abound with books of prayers for women, Celtic prayers, prayers of the desert fathers and mothers, prayers for just about any group or any occasion. The esteemed Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann published a book a couple of years ago called Prayers for a Privileged People.

And yet, many people say they want to be taught how to pray.

I am actually not surprised by this. I’ve often wanted to learn how to pray, too, even though I already do a lot of praying. Some of us - probably all of us - have noticed that our prayers don’t always seem to be answered.
Some of us have even experienced that when we asked for a fish we got a snake.
Some of us may have heard that if God doesn’t answer our prayers, it must be because we aren’t praying the right way. We might have heard that God does not hear the prayers of sinners or the unrighteous. Some of us have had the experience of praying for something fervently - for a loved one to get well, for abuse to stop, for a war to end, for the gift of a child. But the loved one did not get well, the abuse did not end, war goes on endlessly taking lives and shattering families, no child is conceived.

We know that God loves us, we know that we are supposed to pray, and so when we do not see our prayers answered, we figure it must be our fault. We must not have prayed the right way, we must not have prayed hard enough, we must have offended God.

Because we don’t want to wonder, does God even hear our prayers? Or does God hear them but decide to ignore them? Is God not powerful enough to answer our prayers? Which seems like treachery to speak out loud. What kind of God do we have then?

It’s better that it be our fault somehow.

I don’t pretend to know the mind of God. I don’t know why some people are cured and some are not. But it wounds me to the core to hear someone say that they didn’t pray the right way or didn’t pray hard enough and that’s why their daughter died or their husband left them or their mom’s cancer wasn’t cured or their dad didn’t come home from the war. The God I know does not have a plan that includes deliberately taking mothers or fathers away from their children or a plan that this person should suffer while that one does not.

I also believe that Jesus would not have taught us to pray if God doesn’t hear our prayers. We often see Jesus praying in the Gospels, from his baptism, throughout his ministry,and even as he was dying on the cross. Jesus not only teaches us the Lord’s Prayer here in Luke and similarly in Matthew, but also frequently tells his followers in John that if we ask God for anything in Jesus’ name, God will grant our request. How the request is actually granted is sometimes a mystery, I well know. All I know about that is that God brings life out of death.

I also believe that we sometimes have a pretty narrow view of what prayer really is. This goes with the part of us that believes that we have to pray the right way in order for our prayers to be heard, like having to put the correct change into a vending machine to get the product we really want. Or that prayer is just about asking for something: In seminary, a small group of us students gathered in the chapel for good old Prayer Book morning prayer, and some folks from other denominations complained that the “prayer part” of morning prayer only lasted for five minutes. They didn’t have an understanding that the collects from the prayer book, some of which people have been praying for hundreds of years, or the psalms, which people have been praying for thousands of years, counted as prayer.

If I were teaching people how to pray, I think first of all I would want to say that prayer is whatever we say or think or sing - aloud or held in our hearts - that we want to be in conversation with God about, including saying thank you, which we don’t seem to do much.

(Notice during the prayers of the people, we have plenty of intercessions and petitions to offer but there’s a lot of silence when we offer time for thanksgivings.)

Prayer is however we connect to God, both in offering up something to God and also listening for God to offer something to us. When we set aside time to be with God, perhaps in silence, perhaps in community, perhaps with words, for ten seconds or thirty minutes, that’s prayer.

Sometimes I don’t know what to pray for, so I just say a person’s name or name a situation to God, while I’m in the shower or driving down the street or sitting in church or whenever I want to say, again, “God, here is something I think has gone wrong. Here is someone I know who is hurting. Here is someone who is in need.” Sometimes I don’t know the person’s name, but I figure God does. Sometimes I don’t say anything, I just listen.

Sometimes I see people standing over others to pray for them; sometimes we lay hands on one another in prayer. Sometimes we say exactly what we want: healing, love, brokenness repaired, crisis averted. Sometimes we say we don’t know what we should want - can we pray for a good death, is it time for the hurting to stop by way of separation or ending of relationship? Might we pray for the strength to stop doing something that is hurtful to others or to ourselves? We might just say, God, we are confused and hurt and don’t know what to do or what to ask for, but here we are in your presence needing help.

We might even say that we are angry that the world seems so broken and that our loved ones are hurting or that we are in pain ourselves. I am sure God can take those prayers, just as God listened to Job, just as God heard the psalmist cry out for God to hurry up and do something.

The writer Anne Lamott says in her book Traveling Mercies that the two best prayers she knows are “Help me, help me, help me” and “Thank you, thank you, thank you.” She also sends out prayers by way of what she calls God’s inbox, which is the top drawer of her nightstand. She writes a person’s name down on a piece of paper, say a person she doesn’t like but would like to learn to appreciate
and be kind to, and she puts the paper in God’s inbox and waits for something to happen.

Sometimes, if something doesn’t happen for a while or if things seem to be getting worse, she’ll open up the inbox and take the paper out and put an exclamation point after the person’s name and put it back in the drawer for God’s further consideration.

And what she believes about this system is that whatever else is happening, cosmically or otherwise, God is working on her while she is waiting. She knows the name is on the paper in the inbox. She knows she wants - she needs - something to happen, but she is willing to wait and see what fruit is borne of her prayer. And she says that after a while, she often finds herself doing what she hoped she would do, being nicer, understanding someone, forgiving someone.

I like that idea, of God’s inbox. And I know that while being patient and waiting is hard, we who live in the hope of God don’t just wait passively. We wait with the expectation that God is working to bring something forth, something beyond our own imagining. It’s an active waiting, when we tell God our troubles, ask for help, cry out for justice, beg for peace, knowing that even now God is working to bring justice and peace and healing and strength to fruition somehow.

And while we wait, we learn to let anxieties go, to let worries go, to give our troubles over to God to shoulder for a while. Living a life of prayer gives us the opportunity to be worked on by God this way.

Prayer is not tricky. There isn’t a catch. Know that there are many ways to pray and that God hears all of our prayers, the well-written ones, the sung ones, the choked up ones, the ones we cannot bring ourselves to say out loud, the ones for others, the ones for ourselves, the ones where we don’t even know what we are asking for.

Use beads, walk, light a candle, shout hallelujah, sing, cry, sit in silence. If you mean for it to be prayer, then it is.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

On and Off the Island

This odd little rock island, just off the coast of Northern Ireland (Antrim) has a partial wall built upon it and perhaps something else on the other side. We saw it from the island one crosses onto by way of the Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge. It seems an appropriate location for either a prison or a castle.

Islands are like that. They house both castles and prisons. Some of us need to get off the island - to get out into the world and mix with everyone else - while others need to head over to an island to get away from it all. We need both, of course, and the trick is to know when it's time for refuge and when it's time to get out and about.

I frequently get confused about which is which. I like islands. I like being near the water, away from the beaten path. Islands are definitely a refuge for me. So I like to spend lots of time there, physically and emotionally. And yet I get that sometimes I have kept myself locked up there and need to get out among the people again.

I tried going outside in my yard, outside the island of my air conditioned house complete with internet and books, the last couple of days, to water the parched roses and pull a few weeds, but was attacked by thousands of mosquitoes both times. I used to be one of those people mosquitoes aren't particularly interested in; apparently that has changed and I have bites all over. So I need to go somewhere with fewer mosquitoes.

But I see that I need to get out. And take my camera. God is nudging me.

So for the next month, horrible heat or no, I am going to be getting out and doing different things, farther afield than my mosquito-ridden yard. I'm in a rut, and it's time to shake things up.

Collect for Thomas a Kempis

Holy Father, you have nourished and strengthened your church by the inspired writings of your servant Thomas a Kempis: Grant that we may learn from him to know what is necessary to be known, to love what is to be loved, to praise what highly pleases you, and always to seek to know and follow your will; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen

(Lesser Feasts and Fasts)

Friday, July 23, 2010

Going Places

It's time to make plans to go places. Even if one is still stuck at home, even the "making plans to go elsewhere for even a couple of days" activity is enlivening. So I'm planning a couple of getaways in addition to a "work trip" over the next month.

The other day we were going somewhere in the car and my husband and I were reminiscing about summer trips in the family car without air conditioning. (This in response by one of the kids that riding on the interstate with the windows down was annoying.) We talked about what it's like to drive all the way to Florida, getting hotter and hotter all the time, with the windows down to "keep cool." Those of you who remember that kind of trip will no doubt also recall the part about how your legs or arms stuck to the seats even though you were all sweaty and so you ought to have been able to slide right out of there. But somehow your skin stuck to the seats.

My aunt, who did not sweat, had those folding loosely woven (plastic? straw matting? I don't know what it was made of) covers that one plopped on top of the bench seat, which eliminated the sticking part, but it did make funny patterns on your legs. (My aunt's legs were not uncovered, of course.) Also this cover kept you from getting burned by the hot seat when you got back in after your lunch stop or shopping trip.

And we only got AM radio, with limited distance during the daytime (at night you could listen to WLS from Chicago and sometimes WOR in New York City all up and down the East Coast, which was so exotic to a small town Southern girl like me), and with all the windows rolled (and I mean rolled - we hand cranked them) down, the radio was out anyway as far as trips went.

Now most of our travel is in climate controlled transport and we can carry our own music with us via iPod or other MP3 player, although there is still radio in the car and the airlines furnish you with many musical options.

Actually, when I was traveling back in the windows rolled down days, we often sang in the car. My mom liked to sing and she would lead us through a playlist featuring "I've Been Working on the Railroad," "She'll be Comin' Round the Mountain," and "On Top of Old Smokey," among others. You can sing pretty loudly with the windows down, which feels good. (Don't you think it feels better to belt one out than to sing softly?) Or you could stick your head out the window and sing one note with your mouth wide open and listen to the weird sound it makes inside your head. (Is this what dogs are doing when they travel with their heads out the window and tongues hanging out?)

Ah, yes. Travel. I'm looking forward to it!

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Caption and Reflection Contest

Today, I am relying on you, dear readers, to think of something to post that plays with this picture.

Why? Because it's officially too hot for me to think today. I've been out several times and although we've had hotter days, I think the cumulative effect of many hot days (even with some rain but not much) has kind of maxxed things out. My brain is tired, all of me is tired, and I could use a laugh.

I took this picture out of my car window on my trip to the beach last June. It didn't turn out like I expected, but it's interesting nonetheless.

Usually, I do the talking, but today, it's your turn. Give us a short reflection, please and thank you.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Basics

What is it that we need in life? Food, water, shelter, clothing, love. A good swimming hole. A reading nook. Friends. Art. Sunshine. Work. Meaning. Chocolate. Red wine. Blueberry muffins. Trips to the oceanside, time on the quiet water, time beside burbling streams, time in the fresh air, time walking on grass instead of sidewalks. Music - playing, singing, listening. God, faith, knowing we are part of something bigger than ourselves that yearns for our salvation: the end of tears, the end of striving.

What do we spend our time on? TV. Commuting. Worrying about things we can't do anything about. Worrying about money, jobs, illness. Being irritated. Trying to lose weight. Laundry. Lying awake at night. Trying to make other people do the things we want them to do while resisting the same efforts others are making towards us. Ignoring the people we are with because we're texting someone else. Wondering if God hears our prayers and if so, why are things so messed up? Pretending not to see poor people, wondering if people really get what they deserve and deserve what they get. Being offended and affronted.

Just sayin'.

Collect for the Holy Angels

O everlasting God, who hast ordained and constituted the ministries of angels and men in a wonderful order: Mercifully grant that, as thy holy angels always serve and worship thee in heaven, so by their appointment they may help and defend us on earth; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

(BCP 200)

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Not Dead but Asleep

I bought some new curtains for my bedroom. Although they are not blackout curtains, they do make the room significantly darker than the old sheers that were usually open anyway did. My bedroom is on the second floor and looks out into the trees - part of the appeal of the room, which is spacious already, is the view. Because it's spacious, it doubles as my office. So I love the view. But I have been having a lot of trouble sleeping. And so I bought new curtains.

The good thing about them is that I can pull them to the side during the day and still have the feeling of being in the trees; the view is slightly obstructed but not completely. For whatever reason, living in a room with closed curtains makes me feel as if I am in a sick room or something. Our curtains were always open when I was growing up - we lived on seven acres and it wasn't likely people were going to come up and look in (or whatever it is that people worry about so that they draw the curtains whenever they are home). I am used to having the view outside; it makes me feel less hemmed in. I suspect that sometimes people draw the curtains to keep the heat out, but still, I don't like the feeling of being in a room with closed curtains. It seems to signify sickness or hiding or something negative. I suspect that blackout curtains would be better to give me real dark to sleep in, but this is a compromise I'm going to try to live with.

And sure enough, I slept much better last night. Not perfectly, and I still woke earlier than I'd like but later than I have been waking.

I used to sleep so well when I visited my mother at her house. (The one she'll be moving out of within the month.) It's outside of town (and a small town at that) and it gets REALLY dark there. I always sleep so well when it's really dark. Now we have LED displays on clocks, TV or cable box or DVD player; the computer screen sometimes lights up to play a commercial or something. There are street lights that shine into the windows; the outside lights of the house are on at night for security; when the neighbors behind us drives up their driveway, the car's headlights flash into our room, across the floor and up the wall, reflecting in glass of the large picture hung on that wall. And the daylight breaking (which happens very early on summer mornings here) and the skies lightening seeps in through the windows, too. All this happens in our bedroom. Lights tell my eyes, even when I'm asleep, that it's time to wake up. And so I do.

And then I start thinking - my to do list appears in my mind's eye, or details about how to arrange the furniture in my mother's new apartment, or that thing I meant to do today and forgot or the thing I want to do today when I do get up but am not ready to do yet pushes into the forefront to accuse me as I lie there trying to find a cool spot on the pillow.

So I hope the curtains will help.

Feast of Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Amelia Jenks Bloomer, Sojourner Truth and Harriet Tubman

O God, whose Spirit guides us into all truth and makes us free: Strengthen and sustain us as you did your servants Elizabeth, Amelia, Sojourner, and Harriet. Give us vision and courage to stand against oppression and injustice and all that works against the glorious liberty to which you call all your children; through Jesus Christ our Savior, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Monday, July 19, 2010

New Shiny

As summer rolls on, restlessness meets lethargy. I may have an idea of something I'd like to do and then I will decide it's too hot (or thunder-y and lightening-y) to do it. The summer heat saps my energy and the yard is full of mosquitoes (and they get in the car with me when I go out). I think I need a new shiny - something novel that will entice me to break out of the summer doldrums.

So far, however, my attempts have not met with great success. I had a movie spree, which is always good to do in the heat, but that's over. Plus I watched most of them at home, which does not count as getting out. Going out to the grocery store and to get gas or otherwise do mundane, routine, repetitive chores also doesn't count. In fact, doing routine mundane stuff makes the doldrums worse. I get tired of buying the same stuff every week. I don't think I am cut out for the whole weekly grocery shopping thing. (In fact, I try to not go every week.)

I will have an adventure soon - driving to my mother's house one last time to bring her here. That will certainly be an adventure but there may be crying involved, and that may not be what the doctor ordered, either.

I remember being young and thinking that summer was so short. I also didn't mind the heat so much. Now I think it drags on forever and am surprised at how much the heat affects me. I suppose people who live in cold climates with not nearly enough sun feel the same way about winter where they live - they become increasingly susceptible to staying indoors too much because the weather is getting the upper hand.

I look forward to a change in the weather and a change in my attitude.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

A Sermon about Mary and Martha

Our Gospel reading today (Luke 10:38-42) finds Jesus, traveling with a crowd, stopping at the home of the sisters Mary and Martha. There seems to be some problem around the visit, and we experience an exasperated Martha at the end of her rope demanding that the honored guest intervene in a family squabble.


Martha may be demanding that Jesus enforce traditional gender roles; or she may be voicing the often-heard complaint by the “responsible sibling” against a deadbeat one. But Jesus tells Martha that she is distracted by many things and that Mary, who has been sitting at his feet, has chosen the better part.


Many of us, upon hearing this story, stumble into the trap of thinking that the story is about Mary being praised for acting the way a man would act while Martha is belittled for doing the things we all know need to be done, and are often done by women ---- or thinking that this text is about how Jesus values contemplation over action. Frankly, many interpretations of this troubling story have caused hurt. My feeling about the Gospel is that it ought not to be used as a club.


So I don’t think this passage means that Jesus loves my colleague Stuart, who lives out a deep contemplative spirituality, better than Jesus loves me because I have failed centering prayer class three times and took a wrong turn in the labyrinth and got lost. That’s not the Gospel.


Nor does Jesus’ celebration of Mary’s role as disciple demand the denigration of Martha’s role as the one who does mundane chores. That’s not the Gospel either. After all, Jesus sent disciples into Jerusalem to make mundane preparations for the last supper.


So what is going on in this story? To see more clearly, it helps to look at the bigger picture. This scene comes early on in Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem. He previously called some people to follow him, but they were focused elsewhere - one wanted to bury his father first, another wanted to say goodbye to his family first, and a third was not ready to give up his life of comfort.


Those who are following him have shown themselves to lack understanding about what discipleship means. Three weeks ago, the brothers James and John wanted to call down fire from heaven to punish people in Samaria. Two weeks ago, the seventy who were commissioned to go out to cure the sick and receive the hospitality of strangers came back bragging about how demons bowed down to them. So we have seen a variety of instances of disciple and would-be disciple failure.


Meanwhile, last week, a lawyer came and asked a crucial question: what do I need to do to inherit eternal life? Jesus asked him what the scriptures say, and the lawyer correctly answered: Love your God with all your heart and soul and strength and mind and love your neighbor as yourself. The two great commandments: Love God, and love your neighbor.


At that point, Jesus told a story about how to love your neighbor. Jesus holds up an unlikely hero - a Samaritan, someone Jews did not associate with - as the one who shows us that our neighbor is the one who is in the ditch, and the way to be a neighbor is to attend to the neighbor’s needs, rather than worry about observing customs. So last week’s story is an illustration of the second part of the lawyer’s question and response: In order to inherit eternal life, one must love one’s neighbor with compassionate action.


Now this week, we hear a story illustrating the first part of the lawyer’s question and response: In order to inherit eternal life, one must also love God. Mary sits at Jesus’ feet and listens to him. She singlemindedly attends to his words. In this story we see another unlikely hero - this time a woman, someone whom convention suggests would not be sitting at the feet of the teacher showing us how to love God.


So, these two stories go together. One is incomplete without the other - Jesus tells the lawyer to go and do, but he indicates that Mary is right to stop and sit. Jesus is not contradicting himself in side-by-side stories. This is a both/and, not an either/or. It was always understood in the Old Testament that it is incumbent on God’s people to both hear and obey. The problem with Martha is that she is not able to hear because she is distracted by what she thinks duty calls for - just like the man who wanted to bury his father before he got around to following Jesus.


Martha got caught in the trap of not being able to discern the urgency of attending to God’s word when it has come near because she was distracted with things that were, in comparison, less important. Jesus is in the house - and so it’s time to listen to Jesus. From the very beginning, Jesus has proclaimed that the Kingdom of God is near, it has come, the time is now, and all the conventional rules are overturned.


So, this story needs to be read along with the Good Samaritan story and in light of the previous stories of disciple failure. The Samaritan and Mary are good disciples, in contrast to the disciples who wanted to call fire down from heaven, who bragged about demons bowing down to them, and would-be disciples who would get around to Jesus when they had finished their other, conventional tasks. The good disciple attends to God’s word AND tends to God’s people but must know which is which and what is required when.

And Martha - well, Martha missed her chance to attend to God’s word because she was distracted by attending to conventions, just as the priest and Levite each missed his chance to be a neighbor by attending to conventions, just as the man who wanted to observe the convention of burying his father missed the chance to follow Jesus when he came near.


The final zinger that would have given the story special power to those who first heard it is that Jesus uses two marginal, unlikely people - a Samaritan and a woman - to be models of appropriate disciple behavior. ... Mary loves God and the Samaritan loves neighbor. These are the two great commandments. We, all disciples, whether male or female or insiders or outsiders, are expected to do both.


As it says in Ecclesiastes, or at least it would say if I had written it, for everything there is a season, a time to cook and wash dishes and a time to sit at Jesus’ feet. We promise in our baptismal vows to seek AND serve Christ in all persons - not that some of us will seek while others (who are second class) serve. Like the last part of the serenity prayer, we need the wisdom to know the difference between the time to hear and the time to do.


We need to cultivate the vision to recognize Christ when Christ appears in our lives so to stop and pay attention, just as we need to cultivate eyes of compassion to recognize a wounded neighbor by the side of the road and so to stop and attend to that neighbor’s needs.


How will we recognize Christ when Christ comes near? How do we know what the important, necessary thing is? How do we know when it’s the time to stop and attend to God right now this very minute no matter what else I’m doing?


How, indeed? Our lives are full of distraction. No wonder so many of us identify with Martha. We have appointments, we have work or school, we have friends, we have family, there are millions of messages coming at us every day from every side. How can we not be distracted? Sometimes I think that looking for Jesus in my every day life is like a live-action version of “Where’s Waldo?”


But it can be done. We can and should develop the eyes and ears to see and listen for God just as we can and should develop the eyes of compassion to see the needs of our neighbors. It takes practice - just as it takes practice to be good at piano or golf or our job or being a parent or friend. We have to learn how to stop everything and rest in God’s presence - a little at a time if that’s all we can do. We have to get used to the feeling of stopping and looking and listening and get used to the realization that the world will not end when we ignore its demands in order attend to God.


We learn this through very intentional practices to help us seek and connect with God in silence, in prayer, in meditation, in directed reading, in quiet conversation with a teacher or pastor or friend.


Some of us, like Stuart, are really good at classical contemplative practices like centering prayer, lectio divina, using prayer beads, silent retreats.


Some of us, like me, are more constitutionally doers and have to find other ways to create space in our lives to look and listen for God. I’m not likely to make it through 20 minutes of silence, but I can take three or four during daily prayers. I can chant Psalms or listen to certain kinds of music that help me feel closer to God.


I can’t walk the labyrinth without drifting into making a grocery list, but I can walk along a forest trail or beside the ocean and wonder at the beauty of creation and just get quiet so I can hear God’s whispers about who God is and who I am and what is important right now in this place and at this time. Such practice allows us to learn to look for God, learn to listen for God, learn to be ready from regular exercise of our looking and listening faculties to recognize when God has come near. Just as the regular exercise of our serving and giving muscles help us to recognize a neighbor in a ditch and give us courage to come to that neighbor’s aid.


Life in God is a beautiful dance of quiet and activity, of music and the pauses between notes, of looking and listening, of doing and rejoicing as well as resting in stillness. Jesus came to free us from the world’s demands, those conventional musts and shoulds that distract us from God and separate us from neighbor.


So, like Mary, love God. Like the Samaritan, love neighbor. See and hear. Listen and do. Love and love.


In the name of God: creator, redeemer, sustainer. Amen.


Saturday, July 17, 2010

Essentials

I attended a "conversation" (not workshop, not conference) today with Dr Julia Gatta and Dr Roberta Bondi on parish ministry as a spiritual practice. Attendees included one bishop, a number of priests, at least one deacon, and several laypersons. We talked about many things, about spiritual practices, about how hard ministry is, how hard life is, how hard it is to remember what we are called to do among all the things we are expected to do. We were urged to focus on how we are doing Christ's ministry, how we minister from our own center, how we are part of the body and not all of it. People spoke of their very real experiences (difficulties) and we passed the conversation around in the afternoon. It was good.

In a short conversation with Dr Gatta at the end, I described my life as a supply priest, and she said, simply, "So you are doing the essentials of the priestly calling. You celebrate the Eucharist and you preach the Gospel."

There are issues with being a supply priest - notably the lack of community and pastoral relationships - that are coming more and more into focus for me, but this was a gift. I am providing the essentials. How nice that I know what I am called to do in this role and I do it.

Prayer for Knowledge of God's Creation


Almighty and everlasting God, you made the universe with all its marvelous order, its atoms, worlds, and galaxies, and the infinite complexity of living creatures: Grant that, as we probe the mysteries of your creation, we may come to know you more truly, and more surely fulfill our role in your eternal purpose; in the name of Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

(BCP 827)

Friday, July 16, 2010

Door Number Three

Remember Monty Hall's show "Let's Make a Deal," in which contestants dressed up in silly costumes brought crazy stuff from home (a boiled egg, an old fan, a football) that Mr. Hall would then buy from them in order to start off a game of buying, selling, and trading? One might end up with thousands in cash from plain envelopes, a mink coat inside a trash can, or a car behind a curtain. Or one might end up with a trash can full of dog food or an empty envelope, or a goat. Math geeks like to talk about "the Monty Hall problem," which has to do with probabilities and how people make choices between door number one and door number three when they know that there is a goat behind door number two. (I hated probability in school and so that's all I'm going to say about that.)

There's also a country and western song about how "my whole world lies waiting behind door number three." It's not clear what the song is actually saying, other than it's about the show and that the singer is sure that the object of his dreams is behind one of the doors and he will do everything he has to for the chance to win it.

Probabilities aside, we are often invited to trade in something we have in our lives right now for something that beckons beyond the doors of where we are right now. And just like on the show, sometimes the trade is a good one and sometimes it's not. I suspect that many of us entertain the fantasy that our whole world lies waiting behind a now-closed door and that we have to do everything we can to get that door opened to us. A dream job, a dream house, a dream girl or dream guy, a dream life.

The photo here is from a lovely church where I will attend a workshop tomorrow and serve as the guest preacher on Sunday. Notice there's a baptismal bowl just inside the door. One has to pass it on the way through the door - when both coming into the church and going out. It is there to serve as a reminder of our baptismal vows as we come in and especially as we go out into the world. If we choose to come through that door, either way, we trade our old life for new life, we trade life that leads to death to life that leads to eternal life, life abundant here and now.

Not everyone wants to make the trade. If we take it seriously, we have to let go of a lot of things and take on some new ones. It seems daunting - letting go of striving, of being utterly self-reliant and instead taking on trying to love our neighbors as ourselves and respecting the dignity of every human being. We worry there may be a catch - what if we have to trade in our brains, for instance? (After all, it appears that some people feel that using one's intellect is antithetical to living the Christian life.) Or our common sense, or our belief in evolution, or being able to practice yoga, drink wine, accept gay people....

This is a false choice, though. God wants us to bring our whole selves to the altar, our bodies, our brains, our questions, our real lives. God wants us to know that God is good, creation is good, we are good. What we let go of are the things that truly bind us - crabbed hearts, prejudice, fear, ignorance, being victims, making victims. God's world is big and wonderful and full and we are called to life full lives.

I like to think that a closed door will open to me if I am to walk through it. I don't think God plays Monty Hall in our lives, trying to trick us into trading in what we have for a chance at a fantasy prize. I think God does call us to walk into new places, but not alone, for God walks with us (even through the valley of the shadow of death); I think that God does hope we will lay down our sorrows and our striving in order to receive life abundant. I think that whatever it is that lies behind the doors that now appear closed to me, my job is not to weigh trade-in options and strategies to get behind it, but be open to hearing God's beckoning and to trust that God's call is always into life and not to disappointment.

Collect for Our Enemies

O God, the Father of all, whose Son commanded us to love our enemies: Lead them and us from prejudice to truth; deliver them and us from hatred, cruelty, and revenge; and in your good time enable all of us to stand reconciled before you; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

(BCP 816)

Thursday, July 15, 2010

What Time is It?

I am reading Walter Brueggemann's slender book "Praying the Psalms: Engaging Scripture and the Life of the Spirit." In the very first chapter (OK, I haven't gotten very far yet), he offers a simple schematic of the life of faith, which he says "consists of moving with God in terms of 1) being securely oriented; 2) being painfully disoriented; and 3) being surprisingly reoriented."

This is a book about the Psalms, and he is an esteemed Old Testament scholar, and he also notes that not a lot of great writing comes out of the place of being securely oriented - "While we all yearn for it, it is not very interesting," he says. He may mean not a lot of great Biblical writing comes out of that place or he may mean writing in general. Which reminds me of the Talking Heads song "Heaven [is a place where nothing ever happens]." But I digress.... And I remember that when I was in college, majoring in writing, my best stuff came out of times when I was unhappy or at odds with the world in some way. I ended up feeling that I should not like to have a career in writing because it would require me to be miserable in order to succeed at it. But I digress again....

Anyway, Brueggeman goes on to say that the Psalms are our best collection of humanity's crying out to God about both our painful disorientation and the surprising joy of reorientation. (For OT literature coming from secure orientation, he suggests reading Proverbs or possibly the acrostic Psalms 37 and 145, which are (and are about) being orderly and symmetrical.) This place of disorientation of course is where many of us live at various times in our lives, and despite the discomfort of being in that place, we know (when we think about it) that it is the place where good and needed growth is most likely to be occurring. Change and even destruction is the prequel to the story of growth and even resurrection. We must have periods of disorientation in order to experience true newness of life. And that new life is often surprising in its beauty and joy.

So where are you now? What time is it in your life? I myself am in the middle of profound and painful disorientation. And it's not just me - many things are changing in my life and the lives of my family. Our bodies are not working the way they ought; we are moving houses; we are not doing the work we thought we were supposed to be doing; we are in the throes of growing into adulthood/middle age/advanced age and all the stuff that goes with that. Each all of us in my immediate family going through some significant change. Some of this is welcome and some of it is just what one would expect but some of it is neither expected nor welcome. This is a time of disorientation.

Interestingly, Brueggeman, who is clearly a fan of the BCP and of praying the daily offices, suggests that in times of secure orientation, the Psalms are not so powerful as they are when we are at the edges, when we are in our questioning and raw places. We may try to use the Psalms for equilibrium (singing them certainly brings this out - I still get a giggle when chanting a line like "Like the dull and the stupid they perish" (Ps 49:9)) but when we do that, we miss the point of the Psalms. Which is that they give voice to our grief, our raw emotions of fear and attendant feelings of abandonment and shame, these universal feelings all humans have felt throughout the ages. These feelings, these expressions of pain and grief (and also joy) that are an official and important part of the Bible and of religious life and ceremony/ritual.

I admit often rushing through the Psalm in the offices, sometimes in order to get to the Gospel, or to a prayer I particularly wish to say, an intercession or thanksgiving I want to remember to offer, or just to get through the office so I can move on to something else. I admit that I delight in singing psalms at church. I think I do come to the Psalms from a place of expecting equilibrium and if not finding it, moving on without much thought.

But now I am thinking that I am in the perfect place right now to read and pray them as a way to give voice to my own despair, my own deep and scary and sometimes bleak disorientation, not just as a personal message to God but, as Brueggemann suggests, as a way to see how my journey has been shared by other pilgrims, both the ones who wrote and the ones who have prayed these verses for centuries.

"May the Lord answer you in the day of trouble,
the Name of the God of Jacob defend you;
Send you help from his holy place
and strengthen you out of Zion"
(Ps. 20:1-2)

Collect for the Aged

Look with mercy, O God our Father, on all those whose increasing years bring them weakness, distress, or isolation. Provide for them homes of dignity and peace; give them understanding helpers, and the willingness to accept help; and, as their strength diminishes, increase their faith and their assurance of your love. This we ask in the name of Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

(BCP 830)

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Church/Fortress

This is part of the Enniskillen Castle in County Fermanagh, Northern Ireland, which was the seat of the Maguire clan way back when (15th century-ish). My grandmother was a Maguire and her grandfather emigrated from Ireland in the early 19th century, so we like to think of this as the family castle. We visited it a few years back. The window, of course, is one of those famous "arrow slits" through which archers could shoot while remaining shielded from outside attack. The fact that it is shaped like a cross is perhaps incidental, perhaps purposeful.

But it touches off an uneasy feeling about the church as fortress. Various doings in the Roman Church (including the most recent bizarreness in which ordaining women is newly listed as a sin on the same level as child rape) and the Church of England (in which certain groups are bringing back old writings from the sixties about how women to work is ruining society for everybody - but especially males) and in our own country where battles over the inclusion or exclusion of LBGT people at church (both as lay and ordained ministers) continue to make the church look like it has nothing to do with the spread of the Gospel and much to do with crouching behind heavily guarded walls, armed, swearing at one another and reloading. I am sad for the church and sad for the world.

I know God loves us all. I imagine it must break God's heart to see God's beloved people embroiled in this kind of internecine warfare via the church, which is supposed to be God's church. I wish I could just look away, but it's like a wreck that one can hardly help but watching even as one knows it's best not to.

But I shall try. I've got other stuff to do.

Collect for Young Persons

God our Father, you see your children growing up in an unsteady and confusing world: Show them that your ways give more life than the ways of the world, and that following you is better than chasing after selfish goals. Help them to take failure, not as a measure of their worth, but as a chance for a new start. Give them strength to hold their faith in you, and to keep alive their joy in your creation; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

(BCP 829)

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Need an Upscale Vacation?

So we're deep into July, and it's hot, and we're tired, and some of us, even if we have already been on holiday, need a vacation.....

Just in time, the New York Times brings us glamour shots of seventeen seashells, from the common quahog (clam) to polka dotted carnivorous volutes. Eye candy for seashellers. See the truly gorgeous slideshow here.

Prayer for the Absent

O God, whose fatherly care reaches to the utmost parts of the earth: We humbly beseech you graciously to behold and bless those whom we love, now absent from us. Defend them from all dangers of soul and body; and grant that both they and we, drawing nearer to you, may be bound together by your love in the communion of your Holy Spirit, and in the fellowship of your saints; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

(BCP 830)

Monday, July 12, 2010

Never

Did you ever watch any "soap operas?" You know, the daytime television series like "All My Children" or "The Guiding Light" and "The Young and the Restless." My grandmother followed a couple of them, although I don't remember which ones, and she called them "stories." I have heard other people call them stories, too. As in "I need to be home by 3:30 so I can watch my stories."

These stories usually featured good looking people wearing very snazzy outfits, living in impeccable houses, eating at tony restaurants and not working at actual jobs very much; the plot lines followed certain core people through their lives with other folks showing up to spice up the atmosphere from time to time. Long lost husbands or wives or children, mysterious strangers, the new doctor in town, etc. Plots included illegitimate children, incest, scams, and horrible family conflict amid the usual getting together and breaking up of relationships.

And drama. Lots of drama. Well dressed people in lovely homes making all kinds of dramatic statements and gestures to one another. Revelations of secrets is stock. And the follow up reactions as well. Many of such reactions involving declarations of never speaking to or seeing someone or doing something again. Never, never, ever.

Needless to say, I don't think that many soap opera plots make good models for healthy family and community life. (Including church life.) Taking stands, hatching plots, and announcing loudly to all and sundry that one is never speaking to another one again in the face of this decision or that revelation is standard stuff for soap operas, but it really doesn't work well in real life, unless one is determined that real life should be filled with constant drama. (I make exception in the case of abuse, of course.)

After all, in the life of constant drama, one has to work pretty hard to stay on top of what everybody else is doing that one has made a statement against so as to apply the proper (and dramatic) reaction. One has to regularly if not constantly monitor the moves of others whom one has pitted oneself against in order to keep from polluting oneself with their presence/views/consequences of their actions. This takes up a lot of energy, which could be used for something else, except doing something else might allow the grudge or whatever it is to dry up and one couldn't have that. Too much is at stake. Apparently. Although I'm not always sure what that is. The soap opera characters seem to feel that it's about one's dignity or something.

In the case of the church, I occasionally get the feeling that it must be about salvation, or else the grudges and never, evers wouldn't be nursed so fiercely.

In the case of soap operas, it is usually infidelity or betrayal that precipitates the announcement. Certainly one ought to stand up to bad behavior. But in the case of communities (often churches) there seems to be this tendency to claim that "other people" are forcing one to decide to take one's marbles and go home. That just sounds like soap opera drama to me.

A Collect for Guidance

Heavenly Father, in you we live and move and have our being:
We humbly pray you so to guide and govern us by your Holy Spirit,
that in all the cares and occupations of our life we may not forget you,
but remember that we are ever walking in your sight;
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

(BCP 100)

Sunday, July 11, 2010

The Good Samaritan: A sermon

Even in the Bible, there is this problem about lawyers. They are seldom treated with respect, which is sad, because I am sure there have always been lawyers who are decent people. Of course I am married to one, so maybe I’m prejudiced, but I’m sure you can agree that our Gospel reading is not just another lawyer-bashing story and that we need to look past the labels on each of the characters Luke uses to tell this story that we all know so well.


In fact, our knowing it so well probably makes what was a shocking story to Jesus’ audience into a tame one among us, a story we can easily parse to produce a clear moral. But then, parsing is what lawyers do, isn’t it?


Anyway in the story today, a lawyer stands up to test Jesus. First, he asks Jesus what he is supposed to do to inherit eternal life, and Jesus says, “You read the scriptures yourself, don’t you? How do you interpret the Bible in this matter? What do you think you’re supposed to do?” Which is a response we should pay attention to ourselves. Jesus expects us to know our Bible and also to be able to interpret it.

And the lawyer gives the right answer. He quotes the Torah, the law: Love God and love your neighbor as yourself. Correct.


But then the lawyer wants to justify himself. And so he asks, "but who is my neighbor?"


And Jesus responds to his question with the story about a man who was beaten and left lying half-dead by the road, and how two people crossed to the other side of the road to pass him by, but a third person - a Samaritan who shouldn’t have been there in the first place and who didn’t associate with Jews and vice versa - this Samaritan saw the beaten man and instead of passing him by, was moved by great compassion to help him. The Samaritan stopped on the dangerous road, bound up the beaten man’s wounds, took him to an inn, paid for his continuing care, and promised to return and take care of any outstanding bills. It was an extravagant response.


And so Jesus’ unspoken but obvious answer to the lawyer’s question, “who is my neighbor?” Is this: the man in the ditch is your neighbor. Anyone in need is your neighbor.


Then Jesus asks the lawyer a question: “who was a neighbor to the beaten man?” And the answer must gall the Jewish lawyer. The hated Samaritan is the one who acted like a neighbor. Jesus has turned the question around from “who is my neighbor” to “how am I to be a neighbor.”


We tend to read ourselves into this familiar story in predictable ways. We determine that we are not supposed to be like the priest or the Levite who pass by the beaten man but are supposed to be like the Samaritan who shows the man mercy. Good enough.


But this is more than a moralistic story. This story would have been shocking to those who heard it. The Jews and Samaritans hated one another; their feud went back for hundreds of years. The Samaritans were of mixed heritage, made up of people from God knows where whom the Assyrians had imported into Israel when they conquered it, who then intermarried with what few and unimportant Jews the Assyrians left behind. The Samaritans had their own scriptures and worshiped in a place other than Jerusalem. Each considered themselves the real chosen people. The two groups did not mix and their rivalry was legendary. So it was shocking for Jesus to tell a story in which the hero was Samaritan and the bad actors were Jews.


Now, let’s turn the story around and experience some shock value ourselves. What happens if we put ourselves in the beaten man’s place? Would we even be asking such a question as who is my neighbor? The lawyer is trying to qualify the term neighbor - to narrow it down - to determine to whom he owes attention and by implication whom can he ignore. He is looking for loopholes. But if you’re the man in the ditch, do you care about any of that? Do you think that you’d lie there in gentle understanding if someone were to shout over to you to explain that they can’t or won’t help you because you are not their neighbor? Oh, ok, I’ll just lie here dying and wait until an appropriate neighbor comes along.


Or what about this? Are there people about whom you would say, I’d rather die than let that person help me? I’d rather just lie here and die than experience the compassion of someone I don’t know or don’t like or whose theology or politics differs from mine or who is of the wrong color or class or sexual orientation? Yeah, just go on and pass me by and I’ll wait for a more appropriate person to show me mercy.


The message Jesus is driving home here is this: categories and rules simply don’t matter. Think of the person in need. The person in need is the person who deserves your attention, whoever it might be. Categories and rules do not apply.


And this is so hard. We tend to want people to get what they deserve and deserve what they get. And there are so many people in need, all the time, everywhere. So we look for ways to narrow things down, to make life manageable, to keep from being overwhelmed by the sheer magnitude of the world’s grief and lack and want and need.


This is where I have compassion for the lawyer. This is where I find myself in the lawyer’s shoes. How on earth can I figure out what to do in the face of unrelenting poverty and brokenness? I am bombarded daily with stories and images and the sight of people who are homeless and hungry and beaten and hopeless and addicted and dying. I am constantly being asked to help here or there, this cause or that situation. Surely there is some way in which I can determine whom I ought to help, who deserves my attention, among so much need, without simply becoming numb to it all.


But again, if I am in the ditch, do I care about any of that? Does any of that matter? Must I position myself as deserving in order to receive mercy? Does God parse us that way, so that only the deserving, the appropriate among us receive grace and mercy and the unfailing and unqualified love of God?


So you see, this is not a straightforward story with good guys, bad guys, and a neat moral at the end. We might try to make it one, and when we do I think it is because we know how difficult this whole concept is to work into one’s real life. We are intelligent, caring people, and what we see out there in the world is overwhelming need. And we know how powerless we often are to help, to make a difference. We are so often captive to our own fears, our uneasiness about strangers, our worries about our own safety. We’ve heard stories about traps and setups and con men and we’ve heard propaganda about how people don’t deserve to be helped anyway and they should pull themselves up by their bootstraps et cetera et cetera.


But I will say again, God does not parse us that way. God does not divide us into deserving and undeserving. Mercy is mercy and we do well to remember that whenever we draw a line, we will find God on the other side of it. God stands with the helpless and the rejected, including those we reject. So if you are in the ditch, God is with you. If you are a Samaritan among Jews, God is with you. If you are in pain, grief, trouble - God is with you.


So how does one respond to the great need of the world? The same as eating an elephant - one bite at a time. We learn to see need when we come upon it. It doesn’t have to be the entire world’s need. It can’t be the entire world’s need - none of us has the capacity for that. The need that’s right in front of our nose, on our particular journey, today, is the need to which we are invited to respond. We know we cannot help everybody, but we can show mercy to somebody. We can put our beliefs into action without being overwhelmed ourselves by focusing on the one whose needs we can see now. It takes practice and we may have to learn from those whom we never expected and do not want to learn. But this is what we vowed at our baptisms: we will seek and serve Christ in all persons and love our neighbors as ourselves, with God’s help.


The Samaritan had the eyes to see the suffering man in the ditch. He did not avert his gaze but allowed himself to feel compassion without applying any rules about it. His focus was on performing the action of a neighbor, rather than discerning the identity of neighbor.


Here is a story I read a year or so ago about neighbors. There is a group in the Middle East called the Parents’ Circle - Families Forum whose members are people whose parents or children or siblings have been killed in the ongoing conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. Half of the group is Israeli and the other half Palestinian and they all have had their lives torn apart by violence. And they all have decided that they can and will work together out of their common experience of raw pain to to promote peace among a people caught up in hate and vengeance. The Israelis and Palestinians have developed the eyes to see one another as brothers and sisters who have suffered the same grief as they have: they know that the blood of both tribes is red in their veins and when it runs out on the ground; that all bitter tears are salty. They know that only love will heal some wounds. And so once, after a particularly bloody day in which suicide bombings in Israel were retaliated against with car bombings in Palestine, members of the group decided to give blood. The Palestinians went to the Israeli Red Cross in Jerusalem to donate blood for Israeli victims, and the Israelis slipped behind enemy lines into Ramallah to donate blood at a hospital that would treat wounded Palestinians. I never cease to be inspired by this story.


A neighbor knows no boundaries, forgets categories, and shows mercy to those in need. Jesus said, go and do likewise.


Let us pray:


Living God, for whom no door is closed, no heart is locked, draw us beyond our doubts, till we see your Christ and touch his wounds where they bleed in others. Amen.

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