“Let me hear thee softly speaking;
in my spirit’s ear whisper: ‘I am near.’ …
voice, that oft of love hast told me;
arms, so strong to clasp and hold me;
thou thy watch wilt keep,
Savior, o’er my sleep.”[i]
We have just sung this prayer for sleep and God’s safe-keeping. How is your sleep these days? Many of us are more tired from the stresses of our present suffering: changed work, isolation and separation, the pandemic increasing, so much death and loss, cries of injustice, racism and privilege further exposed. When is change? Where is healing? How do we sleep at a time like this?
Paul in his letter to the Romans acknowledges suffering. In today’s text he speaks of us groaning and not just us but all of creation, groaning as in labor pains, waiting for restoration in a new birth. He also speak of hope, of that which is not seen. What does having hope look like? Especially when we’re groaning, and when it is hard to sleep?
Earlier in chapter 4, Paul wrote about Abraham as one who “hoping against hope … believed that he would become ‘the father of many nations,’” as God had said, with numerous descendants.[ii] Abraham believed despite overwhelming contrary physical evidence. Abraham was about 100 years old, and Sarah, his wife, was barren. Abraham was “fully convinced that God was able to do as promised.”[iii] Paul quotes Genesis 15 which says Abraham’s faith “‘was reckoned to him as righteousness.’”[iv] Remember what happened at that reckoning?
John 16: (16-23a) 23b-28
It’s difficult these days not to read every gospel text from the perspective of those whose lives have been so drastically altered by the coronavirus. Encountering this text from John 16, the word that captured my attention was the word “joy.” “You will have pain,” Jesus tells his disciples, “but your pain will turn into joy” (v. 20). Of course he is talking here of the pain the disciples will experience when Jesus is separated from them as he goes forward to his passion and death. “A little while, and you will no longer see me, and again a little while and you will see me,” he says (v. 17). He knows they will suffer; he knows that the events of the coming days will test and try them; and he knows he cannot protect them from this pain. But he wants to keep their eyes fixed not on the pain, but on the joy that is to come.
“You will have pain, but your pain will turn into joy.” To help them grasp this promise, he offers the example of a woman in childbirth. The pain of birthing a child is intense, “but when her child is born, she no longer remembers the anguish because of the joy of having brought a human being into the world” (v. 21) There is joy on the other side of this suffering, he promises. “I will see you again, and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joyfrom you”(v. 22).
“The Father himself loves you,” he assures them, and therefore they can ask for whatever they need in his name and the Father will give it to them (v. 23-27). “Ask and you will receive,” he tells them, “so that your joy may be complete” (v. 24). Once again, God intends joy for his people, not endless sorrow, and God will provide all that they need to find real and lasting joy.
Psalm 71, appointed for today, speaks to a calamity. Psalm 71 is both a diagnosis and a prescription for those who suffer. The issue the psalmist confronts, specifically, is about the insecurity and vulnerability of old age and the fear of abandonment. But this psalm applies just as well if you are young and sick, or if you worried sick because of your own health and wellbeing, or because of someone else’s.
On the one hand, the psalmist has known the presence of God, stretching back to childhood, “my confidence since I was young.”[i] Because of this, the psalmist has reason to be hopeful about the future, “For you are my hope, O LORD God.”[ii] But this is not cheap hope. In such transparent candor, the psalmist says, “I have become a portent to many.”[iii]A portent is a sign or a warning that something bad, especially something momentous or calamitous, is likely to happen.” Old people are portents. Old people are like the canary in the coal mine. We all become old. I am old. Unless we die young or from some other tragedy, we all become old. It’s not your fault for becoming old. However, old people are often forgotten and dismissed. Old people often lose their voice – that is, the power to be heard by others – and then they lose their control to manage their own life and to choose where to go or how to be. At the very end of the Gospel according to John, we hear Jesus, at the very end of his own life, say, “When you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go.”[iv] Old people can be terribly needy, inconvenient, even embarrassing. The psalmist knows about this firsthand. So do we.
But then we hear the psalmist find some equilibrium. With courage and confidence, the psalmist draws from life’s experience knowing God’s presence: “For you are my crag and my stronghold.”[v] A crag is not a sheltered cave. It’s quite the opposite. A crag is a steep, rugged mass of rock that projects upward and outward. A crag is a stronghold. If you were a rock climber, you would reach up to a crag to take hold, to keep you secure, to enable you to ascend. In a desert culture, where the land is endlessly flat leaving you exposed and vulnerable, you will find safety and perspective in height, in being able to ascend, lest you be laid low, powerless, and vulnerable… like you often are when you are old or when you are sick. A crag is a miniature Masada, the hilltop fortress in the Judean desert. In medieval times, castles were oftentimes built upon crags. So we hear the psalmist recite from memory, and with strength and comfort: “Be my strong rock, a castle to keep me safe; you are my crag and my stronghold.”[vi]
And then, it’s like the psalmist “loses it.” The psalmist falls into despair. You know how it is when you feel vulnerable and needy. When you have thin skin. Oftentimes a little help and encouragement feels like a great help and encouragement. It’s transformative. For the moment, all is well! But then your mood can easily swing from cheer and confidence to despair and hopelessness, and then back and forth. Having just claimed God as a “crag and stronghold,” the psalmist becomes disconsolate and implores God, “Do not cast me off in my old age; do not forsake me when my strength fails.”[vii] In such transparent need, the psalmist cries out to God, “O God, be not far from me; come quickly to help me, O my God.”[viii]
The psalmist then expresses one last plea to God: “Now that I am old and gray headed, O God, do not forsake me…”[ix] Feeling very vulnerable – either because you are old, or sick, or afraid you will be – is very difficult, don’t we know. And then something amazing happens for the psalmist, true to life. It’s like an answer to prayer. The psalmist is reminded of God’s presence and God’s provision in the past: “You will restore my life and bring me up again from the deep places of the earth.”[x] It’s a kind of resurrection-like experience, when the sun bursts through the clouds and health or hope returns. The psalmist’s concluding words are triumphal:
“You strengthen me more and more; you enfold and comfort me,
therefore I will praise you upon the lyre for your faithfulness, O my God…
My lips will sing with joy when I play to you,
and so will my soul, which you have redeemed…
My tongue will proclaim your righteousness all day long,”[xi]
“All the day long…,” “all day long…,” until the cycle of fear and impending death returns. Death and resurrection, death and resurrection, death and resurrection.
1. In you, O LORD, have I taken refuge;
let me never be ashamed.
2. In your righteousness, deliver me and set me free;
incline your ear to me and save me.
3. Be my strong rock, a castle to keep me safe;
you are my crag and my stronghold.
4. Deliver me, my God, from the hand of the wicked,
from the clutches of the evildoer and the oppressor.
5. For you are my hope, O LORD God,
my confidence since I was young.
6. I have been sustained by you ever since I was born;
from my mother’s womb you have been my strength; my praise shall be always of you.
7. I have become a portent to many;
but you are my refuge and my strength.
8. Let my mouth be full of your praise
and your glory all the day long.
9. Do not cast me off in my old age;
forsake me not when my strength fails.
10. For my enemies are talking against me,
and those who lie in wait for my life take counsel together.
11. They say, “God has forsaken him;
go after him and seize him;
because there is none who will save.”
12. O God, be not far from me;
come quickly to help me, O my God.
13. Let those who set themselves against me be put to shame and be disgraced;
let those who seek to do me evil be covered with scorn and reproach.
14. But I shall always wait in patience,
and shall praise you more and more.
15. My mouth shall recount your mighty acts and saving deeds all day long;
though I cannot know the number of them.
16. I will begin with the mighty works of the Lord GOD;
I will recall your righteousness, yours alone.
17. O God, you have taught me since I was young,
and to this day I tell of your wonderful works.
18. And now that I am old and gray headed, O God, do not forsake me,
till I make known your strength to this generation and your power to all who are to come.
19. Your righteousness, O God, reaches to the heavens;
you have done great things; who is like you, O God?
20. You have showed me great troubles and adversities,
but you will restore my life and bring me up again from the deep places of the earth.
21. You strengthen me more and more;
you enfold and comfort me,
22. Therefore I will praise you upon the lyre for your faithfulness, O my God;
I will sing to you with the harp, O Holy One of Israel.
23. My lips will sing with joy when I play to you,
and so will my soul, which you have redeemed.
24. My tongue will proclaim your righteousness all day long,
for they are ashamed and disgraced who sought to do me harm.
[i] I take inspiration from Herbert O’Driscoll’s Finer than Gold; Sweeter than Honey (Path Books), pp. 150-151.
[ii] Psalm 17:5.
[iii] Psalm 17:7.
[iv] John 21:18.
[v] Psalm 17:3.
[vi] Psalm 17:3.
[vii] Psalm 17:9.
[viii] Psalm 17:12.
[ix] Psalm 71:18.
[x] Psalm 17:20.
[xi] Psalm 17:20-24.
Ezekiel 37:1-14 & John 11:1-45
Lord, he whom you love is ill.
Mortal, can these bones live?
This illness does not lead to death.
And they lived and stood on their feet, a vast multitude.
The words of Scripture we hear on this Fifth Sunday in Lent vibrate with a unique beauty, power, and density. Bones and sinew; breath and skin and stench; illness and tears; rattling and sighing and loud, crying voices; graves opened, hands unbound, feet planted on native soil. These scenes from Ezekiel and the gospel of John captivate us again and again because the intensifying momentum of their drama unfolds amid the props and set pieces of the everyday. These are passages filled with the raw materials of familiar, sensory experience: bones fit together and sinews stretch; tears tremble and spill over; stench assaults and offends; breath makes hair stand on end. Bones and sinew, breath and tears orient us on the way through stories that become slowly less familiar, more surreal, more densely charged with a mysterious meaning rising from the deep. We blink and stare in disbelief as the invisible power, beauty, and density of God’s ways is made visible – so undeniably visible that our gawking melts into gazing as it is met by the unblinking eyes of Love. In John’s vocabulary, this is glory: the manifest presence of God.
Lord, he whom you love is ill.
Mortal, can these bones live?
This illness does not lead to death.
Rather, it is for God’s glory, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.
Isaiah 11: 1 – 10
Psalm 72: 1 – 8
Luke 10: 21 – 24
We’ve probably all seen them somewhere: in a poster shop; at an art gallery; on a book or magazine cover. Depictions of the peaceable kingdom, as this passage from Isaiah is often called, are popular among artists and illustrators from a variety of traditions. One nineteenth century artist, Edward Hicks, even painted 62 slightly different versions of the peaceable kingdom!
The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them. The cow and the bear shall graze, their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den. They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain….
But I am not an art historian, and this is not an art appreciation class, and as fascinating as it is to consider why Hicks painted so many different version of this passage, and what those differences might mean, the real question for us tonight is not, why we should care about Hicks, but why this passage from Isaiah is so important!
Growing up, I shared a bedroom with my older brothers, Charlie and Chris. This wasn’t a problem, except when it was. On one occasion, they and their friends decided to play parachute, jumping from the top bunk, where Chris slept, down onto my bed. By the time my mother got home and discovered what we had been up to, my bed was a wreck, and my mother was furious. Needless to say, a new mattress and bedspring had to be purchased in order to make my bed usable again.
More problematic, at least for me, was the closet. As the youngest of the three boys, I went to bed earlier than Charlie and Chris. By the time they came to bed an hour or so later then I, it was usually much darker, and the darkest place of all was the closet directly opposite the foot of my bed. Now, I wasn’t afraid of the dark … well, not much at least. What I was certainly afraid of was the darkness of the closet. It seemed like a great gaping black hole, and I was terrified of it. I thought that I could get lost in that darkness forever. I would only be able to fall asleep again if the closet door was closed. And that was the problem. Either on purpose or accidentally Charlie and Chris would frequently leave the door open and I would have to timidly ask them to close it. By then they too were in bed with the lights out, and they would sometimes refuse to get up and do my bidding, so in fear and trepidation I would either whimper until they did so, or steel up my courage and do it myself, scurrying back to bed as quickly as I could, once the dreaded task was completed.
That was a long time ago, and by now, most of us are too old, or too sophisticated to be afraid of the dark. We no longer need big brothers to protect us from whatever is lurking in the back of the dark closet. We no longer dread falling asleep with the closet door open, with that great gaping darkness threatening to swallow us whole. We’re no longer afraid of the dark … well, not much at least.
I was listening to public radio yesterday and learned of a new book written primarily for women – but with application for us all, I would imagine. It’s called Overwhelmed. The title struck me as particularly appropriate for the times in which we are living. Many of us find ourselves overwhelmed by the pace of life, by the expectations placed on us by our families or our work places, by the culture in which we live or by the demands of technology. We feel overwhelmed at times by the political tensions that are so evident right now in our country, or by the threats of enemies abroad. We worry about gun violence, climate change, and economic stability. Life can sometimes feel overwhelming and the temptation to desperation or despair very real. Perhaps you are even now in such a place, uncertain about your future or our future as a nation and a world.
Where do people of faith find hope in times of trouble? Where do they turn in times of duress, when their world has been turned upside-down, when their expectations have been shattered, when even their beliefs and assumptions have been called into question? A look at today’s gospel lesson may help.
2 Corinthians 12:2-10
Saint Paul’s self-revelation about his “thorn in the flesh” is quite mysterious. Whatever this suffering is, Saint Paul has been praying fervently that this “thorn” be extracted from him, but to no avail. There are two mysteries here. For one, we don’t know what this “thorn” is. We’re never told anything further; however, that fact has not stopped endless speculation down through the centuries what the thorn might be. Is Saint Paul’s “thorn” something related to his family of origin, to his good standing in the synagogue, to someone who is out to get him, or who won’t forgive him, or who won’t respect him? Is the “thorn” related to his physical or mental health, to his sexuality, to an addiction, to an unmet desire of his heart? We have no idea, other than that it is very painful.
Saint Paul is writing an open letter to a local church. The letter hit home. The letter was saved, copied by hand, and widely circulated for more than two hundred years, only gaining in authority as the years passed. The letter was ultimately recognized as belonging to the Canon of Holy Scripture. Why was this personal letter saved, circulated, and so revered? Because Saint Paul wrote of a truth that others can relate to. He’s not just telling his story; he’s telling our story. Everyone has their own version of a thorn or thorns in the flesh that don’t go away. Thorns are very painful.
Romans 6: 1 – 13
Mark 16: 1 – 8
Every once in a while I’ll be minding my own business, and suddenly, in the middle of Morning or Evening Prayer, something is read and my attention is instantly arrested. A word, or a phrase, or an image from Scripture leaps out of the appointed reading at me, and for the next hour, or day, or week, it returns to me over and again. That happened a week ago, on Palm Sunday, at Morning Prayer, and suddenly what we say in our Rule of Life became immediately true. We read there that in our worship the Spirit sometimes touches us immediately through a word, an image or a story; there and then we experience the Lord speaking to us.
Keith had been reading from Zechariah, where the Prophet proclaims that the coming ruler of God’s people will arrive humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey. It’s an all-too-familiar passage that I have read, or heard, dozens of times, and because of its association with Palm Sunday, we heard it again last Sunday at Morning Prayer. In spite of having heard that passage countless time before, I have actually never heard it. Or, at least I have been so caught up with the image of the king coming, humble, and riding on a donkey, that I have never heard the rest of the lesson. As for you also, because of the blood of my covenant with you, I will set your prisoners free from the waterless pit. Return to your stronghold, O prisoners of hope; today I declare that I will restore to you double.
It was the phrase prisoners of hope that arrested me. Suddenly, I was no longer thinking about kings and donkeys, palms and processions, but prisoners, freedom, and hope. I was thinking what it might mean to be a prisoner of hope. In a sense, while everyone else was celebrating Palm Sunday, and beginning to enter with joy upon the contemplation of those mighty acts, whereby [God] has given us life and immortality, I was already at Easter, thinking about the gift of freedom and hope that comes to us through the Resurrection of Jesus. And that is where I have spent this week, living the events of Holy Week through the lens of being a prisoner of hope.
Psalm 85: 1 – 2, 8 – 13
2 Peter 3: 8 – 15a
Mark 1: 1 – 8
Each year I get a little crankier and a little more annoyed by Christmas.
Now, don’t get me wrong, before you write me off as some kind of a monastic Scrooge, let me explain what I mean.
If truth be told, I actually love Christmas. I love the lights, and the tinsel, and the tree. I love the decorations, and the carols, and the crèche, and the baking, (perhaps especially the baking!). I love Christmas. What makes me cranky, and annoyed, is that what many people really just want are the lights, and the tinsel, and the tree. What many people really just want are the decorations, and the carols, and the crèche, and the baking. What many people really just want is the baby and the celebration. What many people don’t want is a saviour. But isn’t that the whole point of Christmas? And you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.
For many, Christmas is about a cute, pudgy, sweet smelling baby, nestled in a bed of clean straw, in a romantically quaint, clean, rustic looking barn, amidst softly falling snow, much as we had yesterday. What they don’t want, is a saviour. And they don’t want a saviour, because that would suggest that we need saving. That would suggest that life isn’t all that we so often pretend it to be. And who wants to admit that life, especially my life, is not perfect, or that I can’t fix it?