What does repentance look like? A lost sheep. The shepherd leaves ninety-nine sheep to search for the one lost. The shepherd seeks, finds, lifts onto shoulders, and walks back carrying the sheep. What does the sheep do? It accepts. Kenneth Bailey wrote: “Repentance is not a work which earns our rescue. Rather, the sinner accepts being found.”[i]
Remember what it feels like to be lost. Separated from a parent or friend. Not knowing where you are. Caught up in pride through pleasures or resentments like the lost sons later in this parable. Hungry for love.
Remember what it feels like to be found. Reunited. Knowing where you are. Being seen, witnessed, accepted, and loved as you are for who you are. Welcomed and fed.
Remember what it feels like to share joy. “Come celebrate with me!” they say with a big smile and rising voice. Their countenance sparks heart-pumping energy in us. We smile and laugh or clap together.
Tonight, we remember a key part of our story, the rescue at the Red Sea. We retell the story as part of God’s people, descendants of Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, Jacob and Leah and Rachel, and their twelve sons and daughter.
Sold as a slave, Joseph, saved the whole family from famine by bringing them to Egypt. Later expanding in number, they were made slaves and remained so for 400 years in Egypt, that mighty empire, whose wonders we are still discovering and marveling. Freedom from Egypt? Impossible!
Through a burning bush, God sent a shepherd, Moses, to say: “Let my people go.” When Pharoah refused, God turned the river to blood, sent frogs, gnats, flies, and more. Our people packed their bags and ate a meal of lamb with its blood above their doors so that coming death would pass over them. Finally, fed up, Pharaoh said: Go. Our people fled into freedom! But soon they were dead-end at Red Sea. Pharaoh came after them. Trapped between water and enemy, our people panicked: Why did we leave if only to be slaughtered out here?
Moses said: “Do not be afraid; stand firm and see the deliverance that the Lord will accomplish for you today; for the Egyptians whom you see today you shall never see again. The Lord will fight for you, and you have only to keep still.”[i]
God be in my head and in my understanding;
God be in my eyes and in my looking:
God be in my mouth and in my speaking;
God be in my heart and in my thinking;
God be at my end and at my departing.
The prayer in which I opened with is one that comes from the Sarum Primer. The word Sarum derives from Sarisburgianum, which is the Latin word for the English city of Salisbury.[i] A Primer is a condensed version of the liturgies of hours, prepared for lay persons. This prayer was one that might be prayed by the common people in and around Salisbury Cathedral in the 13th and 14th centuries. In his edition of compiled prayers from the Sarum Rites, Paul Stratman explains that a characteristic of Sarum prayers is that “they have a certain precision to the choice of words. This precision and clarity are what makes the Sarum prayers meaningful and beautiful.”[ii]
We can all appreciate the beautiful poetry of this prayer—five petitions beginning with the head and ending at our departing—a metaphor for bodily death. You may know that we Brothers will sometimes sing hymn number 694—a musical setting of this prayer—at Compline. Its theme has an overall “contemplative” feel—an invitation for God to permeate the whole of our being, including passing from the temporal into the eternal. I am struck by the word choices: head/understanding, eyes/looking, mouth/speaking, end/departing. These all directly correlate to one another. However, the fourth petition seems to be an anomaly: God be in my heart and in my thinking.
Saint Francis of Assisi
There are so many endearing stories told about Saint Francis of Assisi. One legend remembers Francis speaking to the birds:
“My bird sisters,” he says, “you are much beloved by God your Master, and always, in every place, you ought to praise [God], because [God] has given you liberty to fly everywhere; and [God] has given you also clothing double and triple. You are loved also by the air which [God] has given to you; and moreover, you neither sow nor reap, and God feeds you, and gives you the rivers and the fountains from which to drink. [God] gives you the mountains and the valleys for your refuge, and the tall trees for your nests, and, although you do not know how to spin or sew, God clothes you and your children. God loves you so much…”[i]
Isn’t that enchanting? On and on go the legends about Francis with birds of every feather; of animals large and small; of creatures in the sea; of flowers, grasses and grains; of trees big and small; of stars and galaxies.
Learning from Saint Francis does not encourage anthropomorphism – that is, attributing human characteristics to birds, and animals, and sea creatures. Francis inspires me in the opposite direction, what is called zoomorphism: figurative language that characterizes people with the attributes of animals and other living beings.[ii] Actually one of my Brothers here in the monastery asked me recently what kind of dog I am? “Dog I am…?” That was a first. I responded quite spontaneously that I hoped to be a Labrador! Wag wag. And you? You may or may not find zoomorphism intriguing; however my point – I would say Saint Francis’ point – is about our sharing an intimate relationship with all sentient beings and beyond, and not just other people. Every living being, every element of creation, is a “creature” of God, all of us given a share of God’s magnificent panoply of life. One of the astronomers for the newly-launched James Webb telescope said that there is so much shining in the galaxies, it’s as if it all wants to be discovered. Quite so. Some of you may remember back into the 1970s, various groups of people who particularly loved trees began seeing themselves “tree huggers.” I rolled my eyes. I don’t any more. I hug trees and a lot more. Try it!
Our opening lesson today from the Book of Job asks a rhetorical question: “Where were you, [Job]” God asks,when all else that surrounded Job was being created?[iii] The Book of Job puts us in our place, a place of recognition that we – and everything else in all creation – emanate from God and have a place in God’s heart. Our lesson from the Letter to the Galatians speaks of Christ’s heralding “a new creation.”[iv] Our invitation is to co-operate with Christ’s intention to make new, that is, to renew not only what goes on in human souls, but also what goes on in the whole of creation with which we share life. We are all interconnected.
An inspiration we can take from the life and legacy of Saint Francis of Assisi is to be in a reverenced relationship with God’s gift of life both within us and around us. None of us has a global outreach; however all of us are within arm’s reach of some practice of restoration or renewal, some act of justice-making on behalf of other creatures that can suffer somuch discrimination from us through things we have done, and things we have left undone. Where can we give voice and muscle on behalf of some constituent part of creation that suffers injustice, discrimination, abuse, or neglect? To what people and for what other members of creation can you and I take a stand? When I hear Jesus say on behalf of the poor, suffering, and neglected, “as you have done to the least of these my brethren, you have done to me,” I am thinking about people… but more than people as we serve the creation which has come into being through Christ.[v] Saint Francis is an inspired, inspiring mentor for us to embrace the whole of life as God does.
But Saint Francis’ legacy is not just rosy. As an adult, in his early days Francis attracted a huge audience, and there was such unanimity between Francis, his own burgeoning group of friars, and the church at large. But things changed. The church hierarchy was as smitten as it was suspicious of Francis. Was Francis building up the church, or was he sabotaging it? By the time of Francis’ death, there were even strident factions within the Franciscan brotherhood. Some groups of friars thought Francis had become too rigorous; some groups of friars thought he had become too laxed. Every faction thought it was right. Though we want to remember Francis as such an inspiring emissary of love and mutuality for everyone and everything, even within his own lifetime Francis also faced and engendered controversy.
And so when Francis prays, “Make us instruments of your peace,” he is speaking autobiographically. He was witnessing enormous conflict and dissension, both within his own community of friars and within the church at large. When Francis prays, “Where there is hatred” (because there was hatred), “let us sow love.” When he prays, “Where there is discord” (because there was searing discord surrounding him), “let there be union.” When he prays, “Where there is doubt” (because there was grave doubt that Francis had it right), “let there be faith.” When he prays, “Where there is despair” (because there was despair about Francis succeeding… and about Francis not succeeding), “let there be hope.” “Where there is darkness” (because there was darkness on the path ahead), “let there be light. “Where there is sadness” (because there was so much grief), “let there be joy.” And the phrase on his lips which I find most revealing, “Where there is injury, pardon.” Francis prays, “Where there is injury, pardon,” because he knew how easy it would be to retaliate. The prayer of Saint Francis, “Make us instruments of your peace…” is not a nice prayer; this is an urgent prayer, and this prayer certainly pertains to our own lives today.
The witness of Saint Francis’ gives us both an inspiration and a warning as we live today in this frightening time both of warring political factions near and far, and amidst the ecological collapse and climate emergency that surrounds us. In the spirit of Saint Francis, here are some practices to consider:
- A fascinating experience is to bestow the title “teacher” on some bird or animal, fish or flower, star or galaxy. And then become the student. Learn everything you can from your “teacher.” There are an infinite number of these “teachers” out there. It’s magnificent how complex, choreographed, and correlated the life of each of God’s creatures, one with another.
- Saint Francis was not anthropocentric. “Creation” includes all that God has created. It’s not all about us human types. You might consider including in your intercessory prayer some other constituents of creation – a certain breed of bird or animal or fish, a type of tree or flower, something as vast as the Amazon rain forest or as sequined as a coral reef. Whatever attracts your heart’s attention. Ask this fellow creature the question, “How is it for you?” and then intercede on behalf of this other member of creation with which, with whom, we share life. Give voice on behalf of the voiceless. We all have been given a share of life to share. Saint Francis is such a troubadour heralding how interconnected we are with everything in the magnificent, interdependent constellation of creation.
- Just as in Saint Francis’ day, so today we witness such “moral individualism” with the presumption that I – or “thems like me” – have it right, and the others have it wrong.[vi] Dead wrong. The Jewish poet Yehuda Amichai writes, “From the place where we are right, flowers will never grow in the Spring. The place where we are right is hard and trampled. Like a yard. But doubts and loves dig up the world.”[vii] Many of Saint Francis’ followers “hardened” and would not listen to one another. In actuality, they all shared many of the same core values, but addressed them differently. For those with whom we differ, we will learn so much more, we will find arable ground in our souls if we prioritize a curious “why” about our differences, not just the “what.” “So you value such-and-such. Why?” Searching for, finding, and claiming our common ground converts the equation from “what we are working against” to “what we are working towards.” It’s what eco-philosopher Joanna Macy calls “intersectionality.”[viii] If we are only listening to ourselves we become deaf because we don’t hear what we are missing outside our own silo. We need one another.
- When you pray, how do you use your body? My default when I pray has been to close my eyes and be very still and silent. But my prayer has greatly enlarged as I open my senses and let the world that surrounds me be an icon. You may know the wondrous prayer of Gerard Manley Hopkins, “God’s Grandeur”:
“The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil…”[ix]
When you pray, rather than closing your eyes you might also want to pray with your eyes wide open. Look outward or look downward to quite literally “ground” your prayer. When you pray, rather than folding your hands, you may also want to use your hands to touch or caress some other creature of God, another creature whose existence is as magnificent and as mysterious as our own God-given creation. There’s the old warning about “being so heavenly minded that we are of no earthly good.” We need to embody our prayer.
Francis of Assisi is a saint for us today. God loves what God created. All of it. All of us. By God’s design, we belong to one another. We need one another.
[i] God’s Troubadour; The Story of St. Francis of Assisi, by Sophie Jewett (1910), p. 93.
[ii] The figurative language of zoomorphism derives from the Greek zōon, meaning “animal,” and morphē, meaning “shape” or “form.” Zoomorphism is the opposite of anthropomorphism, attributing human characteristics or behavior to an animal or object.
[iii] Job 39:1–18.
[iv] Galatians 6:14-18.
[v] Matthew 25:31-46; Colossians 1:16.
[vi] Climate Crisis, Psychoanalysis, and Radical Ethics, by Donna M. Orange (2017), p. 13.
[vii] Yehuda Amichai (1924-2000) was a much-revered German-born Jewish writer and poet.
[viii] A Wild Love for the World and the Work of Our Time, by Joanna Macy (2020).
[ix] “God’s Grandeur,” by the Jesuit priest and poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, SJ (1844-1889):
The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.
And for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs–
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.
Our Gospel this morning centers on Herod the ruler. Herod is not doing well. He is perplexed. He is hearing all sorts of things about Jesus. He has no idea who Jesus really is or what Jesus is capable of. Jesus might be a serious threat to his power. This scares Herod.
At the end of our Gospel this morning, Herod makes an important decision. Herod decides he has heard enough about Jesus and now wants to see Jesus directly. While I do not recommend modeling your life on Herod, there is something we can learn from what he does here. I firmly believe we can always learn something from someone we consider evil or toxic, and Herod is no exception.
Like Herod, we are all going to hear all sort of things about Jesus. This is especially true if you go to church or are like me and live in a monastery. I hear about Jesus all the time. As good as that is, at a certain point, like Herod, we all want to cut through the noise and meet Jesus directly.
Amos 8: 4-7
Luke 16: 13
Today is the third week in this Season of Creation. During this week two pieces of Scripture have ‘grabbed’ me. They are by two very different prophets, and I’ve been praying with both passages. The first is our reading today from the prophet Amos. It’s harsh and fiery. He pronounces God’s judgment on the wealthy who, full of greed, oppress the poor, and who see the fruits of the earth simply as sources of illegal profit. “We will offer wheat for sale and practice deceit, with false balances.” As I prayed with it I had in my mind those terrible images of the violent rape of the Amazon rain forest, the wholesale destruction of the earth’s ‘lungs’, for profit.
But the other passage I have been praying with could not be more different. They are words from Amos’s fellow 8th century prophet, Micah. It is one of the most beautiful words of prophecy in all scripture. It is a vision of hope and healing. “In days to come, nation shall not lift sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more. But they shall all sit under their own vines, and under their own fig tree, and no one shall make them afraid.” I love that image of complete contentment. As I prayed with these words I remembered that unforgettable day during the Fall, some five years ago when I was on retreat at Emery House. I was sitting in a simple wooden chair on the deck of the Zen hut, watching with utter joy and wonder, as the leaves of the trees gently fell, hour after hour. I knew something of Micah’s vision of peace and contentment.
The psalm appointed for today, Psalm 62, includes the phrase: “For God alone my soul in silence waits”; however another translation of this text is: “Before God, I am silence.” Not, “I am silent”; but rather, “Before God, I am silence.” And therefore, when God speaks, I am silence: I am an empty, open vessel to receive. Our life’s invitation is to learn to “be silence” so we have space to receive the work and words of God. It is a good thing to cultivate stillness and silence within ourselves.
But for many people, life seems to lose its cultivation because of suffering. We witness, and we may personally experience, tremendous suffering, loss, fear, grief, despair that may simply leave us or others speechless and empty, feeling very much alone and abjectly vulnerable. This is the silence that visits the elderly who have lost their health, lost their companions, lost their meaning in life; the silence of those who are very sick with no help at hand and the silence of those who are very sick with help at hand; the silence of those who are imprisoned because of prejudice and racism, and those imprisoned behind bars; the silence of those who live with inexpressible shame. So many people experience a silence that is unbidden and which may seem to them so vapid, despairing, orphaning.
The psalm appointed for our liturgy, Psalm 51, is an intensely personal lament expressed by David, the magnificent King of Israel whose character is so terribly flawed. He is owning up here to abusing his power and for being both an adulterer and a murderer when he prays:
Have mercy on me, O God, according to your loving kindness; in your great compassion blot out my offenses.
Wash me through and through from my wickedness and cleanse me from my sin…
Tradition has it that King David is the author of Psalm 51, which we have just prayed. What’s significant here is not that David prays these words of Psalm 51, but that we do, and throughout the year, even if we are not adulterers and murders. For our own quite personal reasons, we can relate to the lamentful words of this psalm. Of the 150 psalms, about one third are psalms of lament, expressing to God sorrow, or grief, or rage, or regret. Sometimes it is we who lament being in the wrong; sometimes the lament is from our being a victim of someone else’s wrong; and sometimes it’s a kind of tragic bad blend of things, a collusion. A prayer of lament is usually a mess, when life is a mess.
Commemoration of Evelyn Underhill (1875-1941), Mystic and Writer
In the calendar of the church we remember today an English woman, Evelyn Underhill, born in 1875. She had a vast influence on the spiritual formation of her own generation, and to generations since. In her prolific writing, speaking, and retreat leading she was revered as faithful, as insightful and passionate, as wise and practical, and all of it laced with her disarming humor.[i]
She taught how the “mystical life” is not just for the saints, but for all of us.[ii] Mysticism, for her, is how God is always coming to us in “the Sacrament of the Present Moment.” Pay attention to now. God’s presence is always in the present. Now. There will be “thin places” where God breaks through to you, often mysteriously, in here-and-now. Pay attention to now.
Evelyn Underhill comments on the Gospel lesson we have just heard: Jesus’ saying, “When you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”When you pray, shut the door. “Shutting the door” can be very challenging. She says:
Ask… and it will be given. Search…and you will find. Knock…and the door will be opened for you.
What prevents you from asking, searching, or knocking?
It might be literal lack of clarity. Who should I ask? Where should I search? Is this the right door, or is it that one?
It might be an emotion on the fear continuum: anxiety; suspicion; pessimism; insecurity; loneliness. What if I hear “No” in reply? What if I spend all that energy searching but find nothing helpful, nothing worthwhile? What if I knock and that door remains shut tight, with not a light to be seen behind the dark window panes as night falls?
It might be a well-intentioned desire for independence or self-sufficiency; or the desire to appear competent or smart. What if I can just figure this out by myself? That way, I won’t have to be a burden or impose my question or need on someone else…