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.
1 Cor. 15:1-11
There’s a big river right outside the monastery. I’m frequently reminded of its beauty when I greet guests and show them around for the first time. There are plenty of ways we interact with it, whether trying to get across it to go into the city of Boston or dealing with the inevitable noise of rowing teams and their coaches shouting over loud-speakers. The river is a constant part of our life, but engaging with it on its own terms takes more effort. Getting close to it is a completely different experience. Walking along the banks you begin to notice all of the life that it supports. Getting into a kayak or canoe you really get a sense for the smell, and temperature of the water, its size, and power. It really comes alive in ways that a passing glance from the monastery window fails to offers.
It’s the same with Jesus and our spiritual lives. Proximity doesn’t guarantee engagement. The apostle Paul give the church in Corinth some very basic but vital reminders about the reality of person of Jesus. Handing on of first importance what he had received, Paul reminds them, “That Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time… Then to James, the other apostles,” and finally to Paul himself.
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:
1 Corinthians 3:10—14
The Church Pension Fund publishes an infamous yearly calendar, notable for its lighthearted, if not “punny,” cartoons centered on scenes one might encounter in the church. If you hang around Episcopal circles long enough, you’ll come across it, I promise you.
One cartoon appears year after year (as far as I can tell) and it always grabs my attention. Its content is a simple scene. The rector of a church of shown addressing, very matter-of-factly, three young acolytes in the following way: “In observance of the Triduum, our sacristans and our verger with gather in the narthex with lucifer in hand, ready to extinguish the tabernacle light near the aumbry, prior the all night [sic] watch in the columbarium following the Maundy Thursday liturgy. Got it?” Two of the acolytes are noticeably perplexed, looking as if they had just received instructions in ancient Greek or advanced calculus. The third acolyte reassures them, whispering, “Don’t worry, stick with me. I speak Episcopalian.”
Whether you’re new to the Episcopal Church or a cradle Episcopalian, you have probably noticed just how much jargon gets thrown around in Episcopal circles. It is part of our charism; something that identifies us as Episcopalians. Indeed, something we Episcopalians tend to treasure. If you look on the front page of your bulletin, near the top you’ll find one such example in the form of the word “rogation.”
In my early days of church life, when I began thinking maybe this church could be part of my life and I could be part of its life, I remember that for many years, I had no idea what this word, “rogation,” meant. At first glance, this English child of the Latin word rogare, or, “to ask,” might pass us by as just another example of that idiosyncrasy many of us have come to treasure about the Episcopal Church. Another anachronism, a word homeless and out of time, part of a whole collection of eccentricities around music, prayer books, church furniture, bells, and smells.
But “rogation” is not simply some quaint linguistic oddity. Rogation can bring the church perineal invitations to rise to her vocation and examine the foundations of her ongoing building project. In many ways, this is perhaps her fundamental vocation: asking.
Historically, the church has set aside the three days leading up to the Ascension as special times of prayer for the protection of crops and harvests, marked by processions on the land from which the human being was formed and continually fed. This little season within a season marked the significance of human agricultural labors, and the knife’s edge communities often walked, knowing well the deadly consequences of failed harvests.
But we, gathered here in Cambridge, and many of us joining online, don’t likely live in such close proximity to the labors that bring food from the earth. Unless we routinely grow out own food, we are likely quite separated from the kind of historical relationship much of humanity has had with farming.
The provision of three collects for Rogationtide anticipate this, however. Consider the wording of the collect prayed today: Almighty God, whose Son Jesus Christ in his earthly life shared our toil and hallowed our labor: Be present with your people where they work; make those who carry on the industries and commerce of this land responsive to your will; and give to us all a pride in what we do, and a just return for our labor; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Note the words like “industries” and “commerce.”
Here is another collect for Rogationtide, and to highlight just how different these collects can be from one another, let’s hear it as it appeared in the 1662 Book of Common Prayer,
Almighty God, Lord of heaven and earth, in whom we live, move and have our being, who does good unto all men, making thy sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sending rain on the just and the unjust; favourably behold us thy people, who do call upon thy name, and send us thy blessing from heaven, in giving us fruitful seasons, and filling our hearts with food and gladness; that both our hearts and mouths may be continually filled with thy praises, giving thanks to thee in thy holy Church, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
This collect definitely smells of the countryside.
So what are we to make of this little season, living as we do in the 21st century west with the impending crisis of climate emergency? Should the absence of explicitly agricultural imagery force our hand—should we admit that rogation is, in the end, an anachronism?
To this question, the lectionary seems to answer, “no.”
You may have noticed, each of the readings for today contain not a single agricultural image. Paul exhorts each member of the church to an honest self-examination of the foundations upon which their lived spirituality is built. The imagery is architectural.
The portions we hear from Matthew’s summary of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount are equally lacking any explicit references to farming or seeds or sowers. The imagery is even harder to pin down. Instead, we are told yet again to ask of ourselves:
Where is my treasure?
Where, then, is my heart?
How is my vision?—is the eye of my heart healthy?
Which master do I really serve? God? Or wealth?
We are reading a new book in the refectory during our corporate meals— Consider the Birds: A Provocative Guide to Birds of the Bible. What I love about this book (aside from the artistry of its composition and Debbie Blue’s penetrating prose) is the way her exploration of the biblical portrayal of birds has reminded me of the importance of looking, really looking, again and again at what St. Augustine called “the Book of Nature.”
By inviting us to think again about the many and varied ways our human interpretation of birds can teach us, Blue brings into clear focus the bible’s ceaseless insistence that God has given us the gift of otherness as a means to teach us, and as a place for encounter with God. The otherness of birds and beasts to humans; the otherness of people to people, particularly the stranger and the guest. Here, the reality constantly confronting us in the color and song of birds or the difference of a person who does not view the world we do, invites the church to discern her true foundations, her true treasure. And if she cannot—if her eye is unhealthy and her body full of darkness—Rogationtide provides a reminder that she must ask God for the gift of her heart’s true treasure. And she asks for this gift not simply for the sake of successful harvests, but for the healing of the whole of creation.
For the people baptized into Christ’s dying and rising, this means a participation in the paschal mystery, of life laid down to be taken up again. For Jesus is the church’s true treasure. Jesus is the foundation she must constantly seek, asking God to build her faith on nothing less. Not her idiosyncrasies or anachronisms, her liturgies or prayer books, her buildings or furniture.
And so in this little season within a season, those members of Christ’s body who do not live in such intimate proximity to land and harvests are invited to ask Jesus to show them where they have built their foundations. Indeed, the asking nature of Rogationtide is a two way enterprise: God asks us, and we then ask God.
Take these days before the Ascension to ask God to renew the imagination of the church and to build up the Body so that it might rise to the present crisis. To learn from people and bodies and stories and creatures we often disregard.
There, Jesus—risen, glorified, wounded, will meet us in the midst of life, in the midst of our asking. If our foundations will be revealed, as Jesus said, with fire, may it be then be fire of God’s mercy and love, not the fire of our own refusal to ask. For maybe, just maybe, that is the church’s fundamental vocation: to ask.
Tuesday in Easter 6
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…
This icon of the Blessed Virgin Mary, so endearing. On her breast the medallion of the infant Christ. Mary’s arms extended in the orans position, the posture of a priest at the altar. Here Mary pre-figuring how she is carrying and offering the body and blood of Christ who comes from within her.
Mary carries Jesus, who is hidden. God’s taking on our human form, hidden for nine months in his mother’s womb. It will happen again to each of us: Christ’s hiddenness. How Christ who comes to live within us is sometimes so hidden, sometimes working out in the secrecy of our own hearts what cannot be seen. Not yet. Not by us; not by others.
This image of Christ, whom the Gospel of John calls “the Word.” Such a paradox, because the Word pictured in this icon cannot speak even one human word. The Word of God, alive and present in a completely silent way.
And then Mary, whose eyes are not on Jesus. Her eyes are on the world, which she sees and shares with Jesus from her heart. Since the meaning of Christ’s coming is to save the world, the Church’s primary mission must be worldly: the church, not radiating its holiness to a godless world, but giving itself to a world God so loves: people, skies, waterways, plants and trees, birds and creatures big and small. The Church’s primary mission must be worldly, offering God’s love and care to a world dying to be saved.
Our lection this morning is one of three or four concentrated stories of healing in Matthew’s gospel. Usually, they are considered together in context. But this morning we hear only one of these: two blind men following Jesus and crying loudly, “Have mercy on us, Son of David!” Jesus engages with them and asks, “Do you believe that I am able to do this?” They reply, “Yes, Lord.” He then touches their eyes and says, “According to your faith let it be done to you.”
For me, this story brings to mind a prayer which we find in the Rite I liturgy of the Eucharist in the Prayer Book. The Prayer of Humble Access[i], while beautifully worded in the archaic poetry of the Rite, evokes different feelings in people depending on their experience. Some find the language self-deprecating. Yet, others find in it inspiration. It begins: “We do not presume to come to this thy Table, O merciful Lord, trusting in our own righteousness, but in thy manifold and great mercies. We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under thy Table.”
St. Teresa of Avila, Mystic, Doctor of the Church, and Monastic Reformer
1 Samuel 3:1-18
I am a bit embarrassed to admit this, but for a long time, the story of the calling of Samuel struck me as adorably tender and precious, even childish.
Then the Lord called, “Samuel! Samuel!” and he said, “Here I am!” and ran to Eli, and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” But he said, “I did not call; lie down again.” So he went and lay down. The Lord called again, “Samuel!” Samuel got up and went to Eli, and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” But he said, “I did not call, my son; lie down again.” […] The Lord called Samuel again, a third time. And he got up and went to Eli, and said, “Here I am, for you called me.”
One has to admit, there is something warm and domestic about a young boy thrice mistaking the voice of God for the voice of his (sleeping) instructor and guardian, Eli.
Now, these are not bad qualities. Something captivates us in a story where even a child sensitive to God’s presence. To be sure, we doubtless recognize this as a community that comes together to pray the words of another child sensitive to the presence of God—“be it unto me according to your word,” the words of Mary of Nazareth.