St. Michael and All Angels
I don’t know when it began, perhaps the first time someone put an angel on the top of a Christmas tree. Delicate, covered in lace and flounce, sometimes with a magic wand, they may be beautiful, but they have little in common with the angels of scripture, or the iconographic tradition through the ages. These angels as ornaments are likely to shatter with one tap, or smash into tiny pieces unless handled with care and caution. Not so the angels we hear of today. Armed for battle with sword, shield, helmet and staff, clothed in armor, these, dare I say it, muscled and chiseled messengers from God, as icons depict them, are far from the delicate beings hopping on toadstools, dancing on pins, or decorating trees. These are the angels engaged in the cosmic struggle between good and evil. These are the angels of Genesis, Revelation, and John.
In today’s very brief gospel lesson, we get a glimpse into the heart of Herod Antipas, the Roman Jew who was the ruler of Galilee and Perea during Jesus’ lifetime. This short text from Luke’s gospel reveals that he is both frightened of Jesus and fascinated by him. It calls to mind Herod’s relationship to Jesus’ forerunner, John the Baptist. We read in Mark 6:20 that Herod “feared John, knowing that he was a righteous and holy man, and he protected him. When he heard him, he was greatly perplexed; and yet he liked to listen to him.” We know the rest of the story, don’t we… John’s popularity posed a threat to Herod and he had John arrested and imprisoned. Not long afterwards, in a state of drunkenness at a party he was hosting, Herod made an extravagant promise to his daughter, which led to John’s beheading. It was a promise he deeply regretted. It is clear that he was both fascinated by John and fearful of John’s influence.
Thomas Traherne (1637-1674)
Thomas Traherne, whom we commemorate today, was a mystic, a childlike mystic. If his own lifetime had overlapped with J. R. R. Tolkien, or C. S. Lewis, or George MacDonald, I think they would have been very good friends. However Traherne lived more than two centuries earlier than these other three, Traherne born in 1637. He was the son of a shoemaker, and he went on to earn three degrees at Oxford. His university days during the 1650s were the best of times and the worst of times. Best was the intellectual stimulation. However this was a time of civil war and of religious conflict, actually less religious conflict and more agnosticism, which was certainly true for Traherne. For him, life was without meaning; he was listless, full of dread, deeply lonely. In his journal, we read about one sad evening, his being alone in a field, when all things were dead quiet. He writes, “a certain want and horror fell upon me, beyond imagination.”
Season of Creation
Today, as we enter this fourth Sunday in the Season of Creation, we stand at the edge of a vineyard in the early evening light. We stand at the edge of a vineyard, staring in frustration and anger at the small silver coin we hold in our hands.
Life isn’t fair.
Can you imagine yourself as one of the laborers who have arrived early, preparing to work all day, looking ahead to receiving your pay for a job well done? As more and more laborers come into the field over the course of the day, do you feel yourself becoming slower, more fatigued, but assured, at least, that these extra hours among the vines will be rewarded? And as people come in even as the sun is beginning to set, and your feet are dragging and you just want to be home, do you know that at the very least you will have earned your daily wage?
And in this early evening light at the edge of the vineyard, how do you feel when you receive your pay: a small silver coin, the same as everyone else?
Life isn’t fair.
But where does this sense of unfairness come from? You have agreed, after all, to the usual daily wage—the expected, standard payment for a day’s work. It’s not any less than you’d get any other day. No, the sense of unfairness comes from anticipation—seeing others receive more, you expect to benefit likewise. You imagine a scenario in which—despite the agreement you made and despite everything you’ve come to expect in your life as a laborer—you are paid more because you deserve it.
I’m sure you can think of a time in your life when this has been true for you. You learn about a coworker who gets a bonus or raise, and you say to yourself, “I’ve been here longer than them. I deserve as much or more.” Or you spend more hours practicing your sport or instrument, or perfecting your craft, and you reassure yourself, saying, “I’ve put in more hours than them.” Or, “They didn’t do what was expected, or enough, so they doesn’t deserve that.”
I’ve been there, and I’m sure you have, too. I’m sure we’ve all been there because we live in a competitive society, a competitive world, where we are expected to fight for every advantage, for every advancement that we can. We compete for jobs, we compete for honors, we compete for attention. We don’t necessarily like it, but it’s just the way life is. And not only that. We are also surrounded by a natural world whose very beauty and diversity is the result of competition; those species that are best adapted to compete for limited resources survive. Unlike our nonhuman neighbors, though, when we face uncertainty and factors outside our control, when we strive for whatever possible advantage we can find, we tell ourselves that that effort, that labor, makes us somehow more deserving. And if our expectations are thwarted, we tell ourselves that life is unfair.
Is it any surprise, really, that Jonah feels himself so ill-used? Sent on a long and perilous journey, he arrives in Nineveh and proclaims to the citizens there, “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” (Jon 3:4). The people believe him, God is merciful, and, against Jonah’s expectations, his labor is not even rewarded with the destruction of the city! That he has been an agent of good, of the people of Nineveh’s transformation of heart, does not cross his mind; what is the point of God’s justice if God is just going to relent? I mean, is it really too much to ask that God at least just follow through? If God is always going to be “merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing” (Jon 4:2), then what is the point? What has his labor been for? How is this God fair?
God’s answer is to allow Jonah to experience the unfairness of God’s mercy. God makes a bush to grow and shade Jonah from the heat of the sun, an act of mercy that is free and undeserved. And then God makes the bush to die back, exposing Jonah to the elements: an act that is similarly free and undeserved. What right does Jonah have to be upset? “You are concerned about the bush, for which you did not labor and which you did not grow” (Jon 4:10). We can hear an echo of our gospel passage here: “Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?” (Mt 20:15). Where does fairness enter into this?
God isn’t fair. But God’s unfairness isn’t arbitrary or abstemious. God’s unfairness is universal and prodigal. It’s the unfairness of a landowner who pays everyone the same out of his boundless generosity. It’s the unfairness of a father who welcomes back with open arms and a spread table the wayward son. It’s the unfairness of a God who, in the psalmist’s words, is “faithful in all his words and merciful in all his deeds” and who “upholds all those who fall” (Ps 145:14-15), whether they deserve it or not.
We experience the unfairness of the world, but we also experience the unfairness of God’s prodigality toward us. The psalmist expresses this, “The LORD is loving to everyone and his compassion is over all his works” (Ps 145:9), but I prefer Shakespeare here: “My bounty is as boundless as the sea, my love as deep; the more I give to thee, the more I have, for both are infinite.” So says Juliet to Romeo, but it could be God saying these words to us, God revealing to us our greatest gift: that we are loved, infinitely and unconditionally, undeservedly and unfairly. And through the gift of the Spirit, the Comforter, the Advocate, we are given this love, made aware that we are loved as God’s children, and knit together into a Body. But we are not made a Body to labor for our reward. We have already been rewarded. We are knit into a Body to work is with God. We are knit into a Body to be collaborators, co-laborers with God in the ongoing miracle of Creation. “If I am to live in the flesh,” Saint Paul writes from prison, “that means fruitful labor for me” (Phil. 1:22).
And what is this work, this co-labor? If we have been given this great gift of love undeservedly, if we have been given this Spirit, this Comforter, this Advocate, what greater sign can there be than for us to do likewise? What greater confirmation that we are loved than that we can love: “Beloved, since God loved us so much, we ought to love one another” (1 Jn 4:11). Experiencing the overflowing bounty of God’s love and generosity, we too can turn toward our neighbors, human and other than human, and love them, and advocate for them, and be the Advocate for them, knitting them into our Body. We can raise up the low, the marginal, the undeserving, the forgotten in our midst; we can make the last to be first. We can respond to the unfairness of life by loving unfairly, as God unfairly loves us.
Life isn’t fair. Thank God for that.
 Romeo and Juliet, 2.2.140-42.
Welcome to Fall! Last night was the Autumn Equinox when day and night were almost the same amount of time. The earth’s axis and the sun’s orbit lined up given both hemispheres an equal about of light. The weather here has cooled, and the humidity dropped. Leaves are just beginning to turn color. Soon the brilliance will unfurl as leaves prepare to let go.
Today we pray for all Christians in our common vocation of following Jesus. “Deny yourself and take up your cross,” Jesus says. Surrender. Let go of pride, ambition, faults, fears and seeking self-sufficiency. “Follow me; trust me,” Jesus says. “I am your Savior.” We often fear, flee, or fight, but what if we fall into following? That may sound impossible especially when life and grief overwhelm. Jesus crucified, risen, and ascended bears all our weight, indeed all of creation. Surrender is trusting Jesus with everything.
We find ourselves today, on the second of three days, when we are invited to pray specifically for the ministry of the church, and those engaged in it. So, on one day we pray for those to be ordained; on the second, for the choice of suitable persons for the ministry; and on the third, for all Christians in their vocations. Historically these are called Ember Days, and they happen four times a year: in Advent, Lent, just after Trinity Sunday, and in the middle of September.
While today these Ember Days are associated with prayer for the ministry of the church, it was not always so. Liturgical scholars believe their placement in the four quarters or cycles of the year, or quatuor tempora, in Latin, or ymbren ryne in Anglo-Saxon, which is where our word ember comes from, is no accident. It is thought that originally these days were associated with the agricultural cycle of the year: spring, summer, fall, and winter. If that is the case, the origin of Ember Days predates the history of the church, and prayers for ministry, and reaches back to our pre-Christian, agricultural forebears.
In our gospel lesson today, Jesus once again – as is so often his custom – draws on natural imagery to illustrate spiritual truth. Here he contrasts “good trees,” those which naturally produce figs and grapes, with “bad trees,” those which naturally produce thorns and brambles. A “bad tree” cannot produce good fruit; good fruit only comes from “good trees.” Similarly, Jesus says, one whose heart is good will naturally and without effort produce good fruit, while one whose heart is evil will naturally produce evil fruit. The point seems obvious. The metaphor is clear.
But there are two things to note: First, there is a difference between trees and people: A “bad tree” cannot stop producing thorns and brambles and suddenly begin producing good fruit. Because of the type of tree it is, it is incapable of bearing fruit; it can only bear thorns and brambles. But that is not the case with people. A person with an evil heart can be transformed into one whose heart is good. That’s a key difference. Someone whose life is oriented towards evil rather than towards God can change! The gospel is all about repentance, forgiveness, conversion of life, and reconciliation. Sinners can become saints – and they do!
Second Sunday in Season of Creation
Today we continue with the second in a five-part preaching series for the church’s Season of Creation. The theme this week is “Learn.” As many of you will know I spent six-weeks this summer learning from and collaborating with Navajo Episcopalians. I learned so much, and I’d like to begin by sharing one of my experiences.
I was driving a rental pickup truck along the winding, narrow highway that snakes its way through Monument Valley, Arizona, but I returned the gaze of the woman in my passenger seat at every moment I could. It was urgent that I do so, because her eyes shone with the sorrow and righteous anger of generations. She gestured all around us at the sunbeaten landscape of rock and endless horizon that she called home: Dinétah, the Navajo Nation. Though nothing appeared unusual to the naked eye, she told me how this iconic region contains 63 abandoned uranium mines. This is only a fraction of the total number in Navajoland, over 500. Beginning in the 1950’s private, white-owned companies hired primarily Navajo workers to extract this radioactive element for nuclear weapons. Increasing rates of cancer afflicted Navajo people at alarming speed throughout the sixties. Though studied and documented, nothing was done to protect Navajo people. In spite of the founding and intervention of the EPA in 1971, to this day large amounts of radioactive waste remain – in the earth, the air, and in vital aquifers. As she listed the lives of family and friends cut short or diminished by radiated lungs and failed kidneys, my companion’s tears spilled over and her voice trembled as she asked, “Why do they do this to us?”
The Martyrs of Memphis
“Arrived. Streets white with lime; wagon loads of coffins. A sad coming home.”1
So wrote Sister Constance, whom we remember today along with other Episcopal religious and priests who perished in the 1878 yellow fever epidemic in Memphis, Tennessee. Sisters Constance, Thecla, Ruth, and Frances, and priests Charles Parsons and Louis Schuyler were six of the over five thousand people who died between August and October.
At a time when so much of the city’s population was fleeing—fleeing according to the wishes of the civil authorities—these sisters and priests came to the city, into danger, into a “scene of desolation and death.” Over the course of just under a month, this corps of sisters and priests worked themselves to exhaustion nursing the sick, caring for orphans, coordinating and disbursing donations, and celebrating mass.
Today is a perfect day for me! I love this feast for all sorts of different reasons.
I love it because it is slightly quirky. Nowhere in scripture is anything at all mentioned about the birth of Mary. All we can really say, unless we believe that Jesus arrived on earth via space ship, is that it happened.
I love it, because who could not love something whose source is a second century document entitled the Protoevangelium of James. While the feast itself may not date to the second century, the very human desire to know more about the people we love, and honour is as real desire.