On September 1, we entered the Season of Creation. This Season is a time to renew our relationship with our Creator and all creation through celebration, conversion, and commitment together. During the Season of Creation, we join our ecumenical family in prayer and action for our common home. Learn more about Creation Season, our practices for keeping the Season at the Monastery, and how you might pray this Season at home >
In our lesson from Genesis, we hear the second half of a story. The first part, which we heard last week, is more familiar which Abraham welcomes three strangers, prepares a feast for them, and hears a promise God to which Sarah laughs.[i] Here we continue as three guests move on, and God and Abraham have a serious after-dinner conversation, one-on-one. Many translations, including the one we use, say Abraham is standing before God as in previous visits. Some scholars point out, remarkably and uncomfortably, that God is standing before Abraham.[ii] It’s a shocking reversal of power, position, relationship and an unusual conversation.
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.
My brother Michael used to live in Manchester in northern England. I went to stay with him one August during a heat wave. His apartment was hot and claustrophobic, and the city felt suffocating. So, one day we just took off. We got on the little pay train which wound its way slowly, out of the city and up, up into the glorious Peak District. The train stopped at a tiny station surrounded by magnificent hills. We got out and we climbed and climbed for several hours till we reached the top of the highest hill, Kinder Scout. We were exhausted, but wonderfully exhilarated. We drank in the cool air in great thirsty gulps, and as we breathed we felt quite intoxicated, and I remember we started leaping around, and shouting and laughing with sheer joy. Way below us a couple of hikers looked up, and I think they probably thought we were drunk!
Today is the Day of Pentecost. On this day the gift of divine power came to the disciples, and there was no mistaking it; for it was accompanied by an experience which pounded their senses. Divine power was invading them. An intense, ‘catastrophic’ experience. A rushing wind, tongues of fire, a power beyond human lives invading human lives. Perhaps the disciples started leaping around, as extraordinary words came out of their mouths. Certainly, others thought they must be drunk!
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
I love the Gospel of Mark because of its breathless character. We seem to race from one place or event to another, with little time in between, and less time to catch our breath. In a few short chapters, Mark crams in the whole of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
That breathless quality is displayed in abundance in this morning’s reading as we race around Galilee, following Jesus and the disciples, after the first apostolic mission, when they were sent out two by two, and [given] authority over the unclean spirits.
With so much packed into the reading, the preacher or reader would be forgiven if their attention was drawn to the latter part of the passage, the feeding of the 5000. My attention though is drawn to the beginning, to the regathering of the band of disciples with their leader, following their missionary travels. The apostles gathered around Jesus, and told him all that they had done and taught. That is what arrests my attention this morning. I can see this scene perfectly clearly, because I know from experience what that was like
Job 42:1-6, 10-17
Psalm 34:1-8, (19-22)
What makes for a powerful encounter with God? Our scripture readings today are chock full of them. Power filled life-altering encounters with God. Do you long to experience that kind of power? Or does that seem silly? Does that seem like the sort fantasy not worthy of serious, intelligent people. I’ll confess, I find myself mixed with awe and wonder, as well as doubt and a fear of disappointment. And I wonder what this does when and if I approach God in prayer. Job and Bartimaeus experienced the power God in dramatic ways and their stories are preserved for people of faith to make their own. What can we make of them?
Most people have the general idea of the parable of Job from Hebrew Wisdom literature. God enters into a little wager with Satan who thinks people only worship God when they have nice things, so Job gets caught in the crosshairs and God allows Satan to slowly strip away all comfort and joy from Job. But, Job doesn’t give up, God wins, and replaces everything that Job lost and more. It sounds nice when you tell the story quickly and skip to the end. But it robs us of the place where our lived experience tends to dwell, in that place where things are unfinished, painful, and confusing.
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.
For all the mysteriousness of prayer, Jesus, by word and example, teaches us simply to keep at it. I’m sure his disciples couldn’t help but notice the way he would slip away to pray, often. Occasionally he brought a few of them with him on these extended prayer times. His prayer must of have been of such a quality that it inspired the request to “Teach us to pray” that opened this dialogue. Aside from the Lord’s Prayer, there is precious little about the form and substance of these prayers aside from Jesus’ own persistence at it.
He goes on to assure them that they will receive, they will find, and doors will be opened to them. It seems evident that they need reassuring, anyone who has attempted to pray for something will quickly run into the uncomfortable truth that it’s not as simple as putting in your quarters and selecting which soda you want. Nor is it even like filing the correct paperwork for a zoning variance and navigating layers of bureaucracy until getting approval.
God is not a vending machine. God is not a bureaucrat. God is not a trickster. Jesus tells us he is our heavenly Father, capable of giving good gifts like we would give our own children. God is our good shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep. God is the great physician in the business of healing the sick.
or Galatians 6:14-18
Psalm 98 or 98:1-4
I was a teenager when I found it. A simple silver cross only about an inch and half tall. Plain, unadorned, simple slightly rounded arms smooth and finely wrought. I found it in a little silver shop in an old mining town in Colorado. I wore it for years, first on a little box chain, then re-strung a few times, leather cords, braided hemp, wooden beads, but always that simple silver cross around my neck. It was, beyond language, a token of great importance for me. Something that I couldn’t articulate at the time, an attraction, a reminder, an anchor. This constant companion that would make itself known to me on a cool day when I might slip it under my shirt and I feel the cold metal pressed against my breastbone. Or in a daydream I’d find myself toying with it with my fingers, sometimes compelled to bring it to my lips for a kiss. It was precious to me.
And one day, after returning home from travel I noticed it wasn’t around my neck anymore. It wasn’t in my pockets or my suitcase either. It was gone. I had lost it. And, truthfully, I was heartbroken. For months I checked other coat pockets, inside shoes, anywhere it might have ended up but I never saw it again. Now, it’s not that it was such a costly item that I missed it; nor was I somehow superstitiously clinging to it for luck. It was simply because of the joy and delight I had found in it, all the things that I couldn’t speak it spoke to my heart in close proximity. Ineffable strength and peace. That’s perhaps one of the first times I found the power of the cross.