Do Good. Don’t do Evil.

Sermon Summary, Proper 10, Year C

11 August 2017

The Rev. Daniel P. Richards

Christ Church of the Ascension 

Paradise Valley

9 a.m.

Don’t do evil. Do good things. Don’t do evil things. Do good. 

These are prophetic things to say in days like this. But sometimes we need the reminder. Don’t be evil. Be good. 

It is ridiculous that we are at this point as a people, but here we are. The readings today all point to this basic reminder and through it to something deeper that gives it more context, but the message is embarrassingly simple. 

Remember that, and it will get you through the rest of this.  

This morning I am going to explain why I don’t talk about politics from the pulpit very much, but I am also going to explain why we have to talk about politics sometimes.  

First off, I do not tell people how to vote because I have sat in that sermon, gotten that email, and read that post; and I was not persuaded. But even more, my job is not to get you to be Democrats or Republicans or even good citizens. My job is coach, teach, pastor you to be people of the Gospel, Christ followers, Christians who live in this world which is not yet fully redeemed. My vocation is to be your priest and not your political or community organizer. 

And to be honest my own record politically is not all that great. I have voted for people I later regretted and causes that I came to see differently over time. I don’t want you to vote like me. I want you to follow Christ as you vowed to do at your baptism and represent him as ambassadors of his kingdom.

Being your pastor means that I worry about how you conduct yourself in the world because you do not represent yourself only, but you represent God in the world. I have been teaching about this lately, and you have heard me say that as human beings we bear the image of God, are to be as God would be in the world, vessels of grace, carriers of the Gospel. We are to live as God’s sons and daughters, and that is lived in our prayers, private lives, and our politics.

In the book of Isaiah we get a basic picture of what happens when we fail to understand that God cares about our politics as much as our worship. “I do not delight in the blood of bulls, lambs, or goats . . . Cease to do evil! Learn to do good!” The people’s worship was meaningless and did not honor God because it was not congruent with their lives, personal or political.

The people of Israel were supposed to represent what God is like in the world in their worship but even more for the prophets in their ethical treatment of each other, the poor, and the stranger in the land. That language is not political speech from today’s headlines, but rather it is the language of the Torah, the Law, and the Prophets. It is God’s language. 

If you are a person who seeks to represent God, the God of Israel, the Bible and Jesus of Nazareth, you cannot neglect other people, especially the poor and the immigrant. It is not an option for you. If you choose to do so, you are in essence saying, “I choose not to represent the God of Israel, the God of the Bible, and his Son Jesus.” And though the promises given are free, you may not accept the promises of citizenship in his kingdom and may endanger your very soul. 

That is harsh. But, that is the Bible’s word from Genesis to Revelation. 

So you see how I have to talk about politics a little to be a faithful pastor? It is unavoidable. 

On the other hand, there are a lot of faithful ways that you can care for the poor, the widow, and the orphan. But before I give your some room, let’s make this slightly more uncomfortable.

Immigration is one of the largest and most complex issues in American politics today. This administration has made it central to its mission. Now, let’s be honest about the issue: a nation has to control its borders and manage the flow of people, but we can do so humanely.

In our country we offer social help, mild democratic socialism, in the form of food and medical assistance, housing, and economic aid, not to mention welfare services, social services, psychological and even transportation assistance. We voted for it and supported it numerous times over the last hundred years. These forms of assistance pervade our government and our lives as citizens.

What I saw as a pastor and priest down in the southern part of our state was that unregulated illegal immigration created a hardship for the poor seeking those services. When we offer the same services to those here but not registered, those resources get lost to those here legally, by birth or migration. 

And before you write off the people coming across the border, most of them are Christians: Roman Catholics, protestants, pentecostals, and even Anglicans. All of them are human beings, and most are simply seeking the opportunities our forbears sought.

So we have competing values.

Those competing values have several immediately obvious answers and more complex and deeper ones that may not be so obvious. The work to figure out a real answer to migration issues will involve compromises of deeply held values. That is the work of good politics. And I believe in that work, though like others I am often disappointed in the compromises. We could argue for years about how to handle this issue.

But you cannot neglect your neighbors in any case. You should not do evil in your politics or your speech. You gave up that option at your baptism.

We live in a time of politics as divisive as ever. But there is much to be thankful for. We live in one of the wealthiest times in one of the wealthiest nations ever. Especially as common people. 

I had this friend and mentor who was a Lutheran minister I served with in Michigan. He had two small Lutheran and Episcopal churches, and we often rode downstate to meetings together. Some of my fondest memories of Tom are being bundled up in his car driving in a blizzard with the windows cracked while he smoked a pipe and sang the Lutheran settings of the liturgy from their Book of Worship. 

He and his wife had this small place way up north on a peninsula where in the winter the wind blew straight from one part of Lake Michigan to another blowing the snow so hard it often didn’t even land in his yard. It was a cold harsh place in my mind in winter, but they would sit on their porch in the evening and say, with indoor plumbing and central heating, they “lived better than the kings and queens of England.” 

We forget that we have it so good. We are the blessed. But we have much work to do, even today. And I have many political opinions, but I rarely stand up here and tell you how to respond politically. But I will say again, Do good and do not do evil. Be good and do not be be evil. 

Jesus tells us, “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” 

What do you have to be afraid of, you children of the living God, who made the heavens and the earth, spun the Horsehead Nebula and molded the salamander? God has made all things for you, why let someone talk you into fear? Be bold. Be generous. Be good.

You have a kingdom, why will you not share your bounty? 

You have eternal life? Why are you afraid of anyone? 

Be bold.  Our current and previous bishops both belong to Bishops Against Gun Violence, which is just ridiculous. This, of course, replaced the previous Bishops For Gun Violence Working Group, which was proceeded by Bishops for Stabbings. We are in such a state that we have bishops who have to proclaim that they are against violence. 

There are lots of complex issues in the world, but there are some that are so basic that we all should be able to see good and evil, but we are persuaded that morality is political, and that our responses are set by the parties we belong to, but that is a lie. Satan is real, and he has lobbyists. Don’t be one. Do not support evil. Support good things. 

Step back from your allegiances to party and politics and spend some time with Christ to whom you owe your life. Get your allegiances right. We are for Christ, and so we are for the good.

Many of you have wondered about my time with the fire department, and it amounts to less time than some people put into their hobbies. I guess you could say my hobby is holding up the good men and women of the city, but that work puts me out there in some places I would not ever go, and I can tell you there is real evil in the world. There is real evil in our city.

This is not the “I had wait ten minutes in construction”evil, but life destroying, child sacrificing, violence and abuse and degradation evil. And there are men and women who stay awake so that we can sleep at night. They are doing the good in ways that most of us never see. Give thanks for them. Pray for them and their families.

That is part of our politics too. We are for those who do the good, and we are against those who do evil, recognizing as Paul says, Our battle is not against flesh and blood, but against the principalities and powers . . . “ We are not against people but against the spiritual forces they come to represent. Those who work for the good deserve our prayers, our support, and our honesty. 

In our work for God, we must not mistake that our enemies are less than we are. They are human beings who represent something else, something greater than themselves. We battle evil, not people. And it takes a discerning eye to know if a person is good or evil. Do you have it? 

We must think carefully about how we are to live, who we are to support, and be clear-eyed about the compromises that we make. But we must also not relent in our belonging to Christ. 

Get your heart right. Jesus gives us a way to aim our heart and correct our allegiances. Use your money to aim your heart. “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” I have always heard this as a statement of being, ontological truth. But what if it is a strategy? 

Jesus tells us to in the same passage, like Isaiah, to give alms. Now that is, to be clear, money to the poor. Your political contributions nor your pledges count. Alms are moneys given to those in need. 

Amy and I have supported a girl through LoveJustice for well over a decade now. She had adopted her just before we started dating, and we have sent along a little money every month to support her care and education. But the amazing thing is not that, but it is how that little amount has pulled our heart halfway around the world. Our children have grown up with a girl they have never met face to face, and we have remained aware of those doing the good work in places we have never been.

What will be that for you? How will you check your allegiances? How can you be an ambassador for Christ? A child of God? 

Do good, and not evil.

Made in the Image of God: Gilroy as Sacrament

Prologue. I wrote this piece for the Bishop’s ePistle as a guest author last week before three more mass shootings wracked our nation. It seems more relevant and more difficult as I reread it for this week. But it is no less true. 

We are called to live as Christ’s emissaries, fellow children of our Father, in a world that is not yet redeemed from death and violence. We cannot do this alone. We cannot do it by following the world’s ways. We must be transformed by the work of the Holy Spirit, and we must work together to embody love and work for peace. 

Amid the screams, flying bullets and bloodshed that erupted on a warm summer evening at the Gilroy Garlic Festival on Sunday, someone shouted a pivotal question at the gunman: “Why are you doing this?” “Because I’m really angry,” the gunman replied, according to Jack Van Breen, who spoke with reporters after performing at the festival with his band, TinMan. 

-from Los Angeles Times article “Disturbing Portrait Emerges of Gilroy Festival Shooter,” July 30, 2019, By MATTHEW ORMSETH, HANNAH FRY, LAURA J. NELSON, COLLEEN SHALBY, RICHARD WINTON, ALENE TCHEKMEDYIAN

In the middle of our last summer in seminary, several classmates drove down from Berkeley to the Gilroy Garlic Festival to take a break from hospital chaplaincy and try garlic ice cream. We also got in a Scottish Games Festival on that trip.

It was a normal summer afternoon in California at a small town fair, extremely local and low key. It was a day of friendship and quirky local fair.

 
And, yes, the garlic ice cream was amazing. 


This summer’s memories of the Gilroy Garlic Festival will be marked not by friendship and flavors, but by senseless violence and questions about motives and gun laws. Or maybe we have already moved on. 

For a moment, I want to call us back to this moment and ask to consider our response as Christians. There will be other moments and many closer to home for us to respond to, but this one offers us the opportunity to ask some hard questions at a distance that may later be too close. 

Imago Dei, the image of God. At the Creation in Genesis, God makes humanity to be “in our image,” which we usually put in terms of our worth when we say, “Everyone is made in the image of God.” But the idea in Genesis is that we are made to be as God in the created world, to represent God in our care of the garden of creation, and to be a companion to God, and to each other. 

I shorthand this to, “We are made to be as God’s children on the earth, to love God, care for each other, and take care of the creation itself.” 

We blow it right from the beginning, but the long story is that God restores us in Christ to be what we were made to be in the beginning. This restoration in Christ is at the heart of our understanding of the purpose of the cross as a cosmological redemption and our vocation as Christians. 

Humanity was supposed to be God’s theological statement, showing the world who God was by being like God in our worship, companionship, and care for others and the world. 

When humanity blows it, God focusses that call into the people of the Torah. The Law of Israel is all about revealing God to the world in how the Israelites lived with God, the Creation, and each other, especially the “widow, the orphan, and the stranger in the land.” The Law gets into some places that we are uncomfortable for us today, because we have made religion stay in its box, separated from our politics and personal freedoms, which we want to believe only affect us. 

The Bible has no problem addressing our politics and personal freedoms because we are called to be something more.  So when we make our personal choices, they are supposed to reveal God to the world as Christ revealed God to us.  This is what it means to be made in God’s image, live as God’s children, and to pray and act “in his Name.” 

This is why some moments of community and friendship resonate deeper than folly and become like sacraments of holiness, our vocation as human beings set free from sin and death to live in Christ. That day in Gilroy almost twenty years ago was a theological statement as surely as anything we read in class or uttered in a hospital room as beginner chaplains. It was a sacramental moment.

Now, for many people mostly far away, Gilroy will be a sign of another reality, of anger, of violence, of a fallen world. And part of the fascination have with these events is driven by the need to understand what reality is being expressed in these acts. Was it white supremacy or some other psychosis? 

For us Christians it is worth asking not just what the shooter intended in his act, but what our acts in response represent in the world. Is our response mere passivity in the face of violence or can we act faithfully in a dangerous world not yet whole or wholly saved? What do we do? 

Anger in Our Lives  

“You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire. 

Matthew 5:21-22

Jesus calls us into these deeper questions, calling us not to just avoid murder, but to give up anger, insults, and condemnation. As a simple command, this seems unreasonable and implausible especially in a time like we are in. But the reason and logic of the whole Bible is at play. 

We are called to live as children of God, and we do not need to live angry, vile, and condemning lives because we represent a reality where we are cared for, loved, valued, and where we human beings are made to love, value, and care for others. We hold that reality out in our lives as our witness, our theological statement about who God is in the face of a world that does not seem to agree with us. This is why we talk about faith, trusting Christ’s teaching in the world now.

White supremacy is therefore a theological impossibility for a Christian. It is heresy that leads to death. It is not the only heresy on sale these days. It is tempting to make a menu of heresies that I hate for you, but that is the way of the angry man, and it leads to death too.

The letter to the Colossians holds open another way. I implore you to memorize the first seventeen verses of chapter 3; commit them to your heart and let them become your instinct: “Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts. . .” should be our aim as his followers. We are called to live differently than the world around us, and Paul and Timothy’s letter tells us to watch what we think about, turning our attention to those things that are above. 

They did not mean to think about clouds and angels, but rather to see from Christ’s perspective, seeing human beings as children of God, representing their Father in heaven on earth, living in his Kingdom now because we have been set free from anger and death. 

Let us grieve Santino William Legan a young man who made his life and death a sacrament of anger and death, whose hell we hope to never know. He failed as so many of us do, only he took his anger to its full end. 

Let us rather choose to live sacramental lives of love and life, taking every thought captive to Christ, training our hearts and hands to live as human beings, making our days communion and salvation for the sake of the world that God made, loves, and for which Christ laid down his own life rather than others.

Closer to home we will have opportunities to choose the path of life in personal choices, politics, and simple acts of companionship and joy. Let’s go to Gilroy sometime and have ice cream.

-daniel+

*The Holy Bible: New Revised Standard Version. (1989). (Mt 5:21–22). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.

Grace: a theological exploration part 2

What happens when our conception of God fundamentally changes? 

In the time of Jesus calling God “Dad” was radical, or at least we think it was radical for the time. To be honest about the research we cannot really tell if it was shocking or not.

It is not a normal title for God in Hebrew literature, but it was not completely unheard of either. 

The unique thing about the title of “Dad” is that it is a keystone to the whole arch of Jesus’ teaching. His concept of Dad was compassionate, loving, merciful, and quick to forgive. Both the gospels and letters teach that part of that teaching is that we are God’s children, or we can be.

Jesus is God’s son, that is undisputed by anyone in the Christian faith. It is a pillar of doctrine. You are in or out of the definition of being a Christian based simply on the answer to that question of belief, among a very few others. 

Leaving behind for a moment what that means to classical theology, in the Hebrew tradition it meant that Jesus would have the character of God. The same way that when my father says, “Boy, you are your mother’s son,” what he means is that I have some characteristic of my mother, like stubbornness, for example. 

Jesus has God’s character. This is an aspect of what we call incarnation in theology. Jesus makes “carne” or meaty what God is in spirit. This notion that Jesus embodies God is another key theological idea that lies at the center of Christian thought. But at the least it means that Jesus has God’s character.

In the prologue of the Gospel of John we are told that because of the Logos we are capable of becoming children of God, not through the desire of a man or the strength or will but through the abiding of the Holy Spirit. This is right up front in the gospel, literally and literarily. We become children of God as we abide in his Spirit and as his Spirit abides in us.

We are to take on his character, just as Jesus had God’s character. The logic of this is ironclad, and once you see it, you see it throughout the New Testament. 

Therefore if grace is God’s character, then we are to have grace. We are to give freely forgiveness, things, provision, love. This is all in the Sermon on the Mount, but it is also the consistent message throughout the text, stated in different ways. 

Think seriously about that for a moment. We are supposed to be a people of grace if we are God’s people, Jesus’s disciples, embodying the Holy Spirit. We are to be generous, forgiving, merciful, and loving. 

If you know real Christians, you know people like this. 

The question before us is “How do we shape a people like this?”

Presiding Bishop Michael Curry and his staff have produced a Way of Love curricula that locates this in a series of practices. I have taught and written about this very thing throughout this blog and my churches. This is the question of our times.

How do we become a people of the Way? 

The Rule of Grace is one way to put the process, as you will find with a search of this sight. It is the way we inculcate a people of the transaction into the way of Christ. 

It begins with knowing God and continues with loving.

Grace: a theological exploration part 1.

We are in the middle of another Reformation. Whether you know it or not, your pastor or priest does. The theological world is in flux, and there is a massive shift beneath our feet. Theology is, after all, a landscape to wander in. (Thank you, Guide Rowan Williams.) 

Grace is not a thing.

The Reformation was built around an assumption built in Thomas Aquinas. That assumption is that grace is a thing. The argument was under what conditions the thing is given, earned, or exchanged for something else. 

The problem is that grace is not a thing. It is the character of God. Read Jesus carefully. God forgives. God is merciful. God is consistently compassionate.  You are not, but God is. God’s character is grace. 

Grace is charis and that means gift in English. A gift is given. It is not earned or payed for. This is essential to the definition. And this fits with both the descriptions of God in Jesus and with the demands of Jesus of his disciples. 

The essence of Jesus is that God has grace and wants you to treat others with grace. You have been given freely the life and blessings and freedom you have, and you are expected to give freely or you won’t continue to receive freely. This is a big deal that is rarely talked about on the grace side of the argument. The Reign of God is only operative where we, the reigned, act as if we are reigned. We must be the children of our Father in the Heavens in order to be his children.

God’s character is to love God’s children. This only makes sense. The problem we have is that God loves all of the children. So if one harms a child, then God is angry and may cut us off from his presence, his blessing, his peace. God is merciful, but God also demands that we be merciful.

So. We are currently coming to terms with this simple shift, but simple can be terrible. Earthquakes are generally simple. 

The theological world is shifting as we come to terms with fundamental understandings of how God then is understood. 

God loves you and wants you to be an heir to the Reign and bear the image of God in the world, so the Son incarnates God in the world to open the gates of the covenant wide, teach the way of God, and take our sins and separation onto himself and reunite us with God through the indwelling of his Spirit. This is all done so that you can go into the world to bring that grace to others. As you do that you enter the divine life. 

That life is in the Way of God. Your work, or at least my work, is to become more like God, to have God’s grace by reflex in any situation. I am not a natural at this. I have to work at it. 

Then I get a little bit of it. I love someone. Maybe my child or spouse or some kindly lady in the next pew. But along comes some new person. Take the lady who lost the child in the terrible neighborhood because she made a mistake that she didn’t know was even there and let her child be exposed to chemicals or bad food, who is morbidly obese and undernourished at the same time because she lives in a neighborhood where the food is degraded to the point that though she overeats she is underfed and slowly being destroyed by the systems that I help create and sustain. 

What do I do to love her? I mean, Lord, if you call me to love her, I do not know how. I can barely handle loving my wife whom I have great affection and desire for. So thank you very much, I will keep the God of the tribe I belong to who needs me to pray in the ways I have been taught, that feel natural because they are what I already know, and who gives me comfort because I am nice to the lady in the next pew and fill in the right blanks on the check I write to the Temple.

Of course I am not satisfied by the god I can control. That god is not a person, not the God of the Bible, nor the Father in the Heavens. When you begin to see the God of Jesus, nothing else will fill the longing in your soul.

Keeping the Office: Spirit, Soul, Balance, and Coyotes

Run. Lift. Run. Lift. Run. Yoga? Run. Box. Lift. Staying in shape takes discipline and variation. My preference is long bouts of running (trails on the menu tonight) mixed with heavy lifting and boxing work on a heavy bag. If that sounds like a lot you can comfort yourself knowing that it all gets spread out by life.

In the Episcopal Church we are shaped by prayer in a four-fold practice that is deeply rooted in the Benedictine practice of the Catholic Church of the west. One of the current losses in the Episcopal tradition is the focus only on the Eucharistic and sacramental practices to the exclusion of everything else. In reality we are shaped equally by the Daily Office, prayer of the heart, and Lectio Divina.

Each of these types of prayer has its own place in a healthy, balanced life. The Eucharist has taken on the dominant role since the 1979 Book of Common Prayer moved it to the center of the weekly gathering and moved from being a devotional guide for regular practice to the being a sourcebook for liturgy. This description by the Very Rev. Rebecca McClain in a staff conversation rings with my own experience. The options that are available to offer variety in the services of Eucharist are distracting in the Daily Office.

The Daily Office is a condensed version of the monastic hours of the Benedictine tradition. The Opus Dei, work of God, of Benedict’s Rule is the monks’ lifting up the continuous praise of the church hour after hour, day after day, year after year. I am reminded of this every time I settle into retreat. The Office is our secular lifting up of that praise. It is continuous and faithful, and decidedly not consumerist.

The praise of the church, rooted in the praise of all creation, is going to go on with or without us joining in. We join in to be a part of God’s reign of peace and grace. We are changed by being a part of that work as a fire purifies metal.

The loss of the Office is then a loss of transformation in the particular way that being a part of something larger than ourselves changes us.

It is useful to offer a splitting of hairs between Spirit and soul at this point. In my anthropology I understand the spirit of a person to be reflective of and part of the Spirit of God, the God-breath that animates us and gives us consciousness, being, and life. But that part of us is not individualized but is universal. Those things we call “spiritual” all have reliable components of light, higher sensibilities, goodness.

The soul, on the other hand, is the part of us that is unique. It has a sense of the quirky, individual, and rootedness. To say that something is soulful is to say it is rooted in the person in a different way than the Spirit. Anything that is of the soul should be good, but may not be.

The Spirit of God is our breath in some way that makes us human. It is what gives us our unique vocation as a species to care for the creation, each other, and to worship God. The soul is the unique person that God has made us to be. They are inseparable, but they are different from each other.

A person needs to develop in both. As a spiritual person, the Office offers growth in the ways of God joining into the praise, light, and offering of the church universal. But we have all known people who are deeply spiritual but seem not to have developed the unique voice and depth of rootedness of the soul.

The Office is not enough by itself. The prayer of the heart is that extemporaneous conversation with God that fills our days and dreams. It should be unique, quirky, free. It is the Spirit breathing in our spirit to lift us what God will within us. We might call it the prayer of the soul. It seems easiest for some people, and in some versions of faith it is the only form of prayer that is taught or valued.

But on the other hand, we have also known people who are rooted in their individuality but are not connected to what is good, light. They have gone into the shadow without light and have even at times become a shade, a ghost of a human being. Evil is possible without ongoing connection to the Spirit when the personal good becomes the only good; just a surely the universal good can devalue the individual to the point of evil as well.

We need all four kinds of prayer in order to be whole. The poles we have drawn here between Office and prayer of the soul are matched by other polarities between each and Eucharist and Lectio.

Focussing on the Office, the universal nature of the Office should be balanced by the communal gathering around Jesus in the Eucharist. The communion service should be shaped by the people who are gathered in a way that the Office is not. And Lectio, the practice of divine reading is meant as a kind of whole self entering into the Bible, a meta-study, that is very different in intent and outcome than the reading of the Bible in the Office.

All of this forms a whole practice of prayer. The Office may be the queen of the practice in the Anglican past, but the Eucharist has taken over in these last few decades, and I am not sure that we are in better shape.

Yesterday I was deadlifting, tonight I will put in a few miles in the darkened mountains with javelinas and coyotes. But neither of these is the point.

Health and strength are for life. They are for wrestling with my kids and carrying groceries and kneeling in prayer without weariness.

The Office and all the rest is not the point either, but the relationship with God that forms us as heirs of the Reign of God, children of Abba, siblings to the Christ who saves us, and temple to the Holy Spirit.

Tonight I will run among the mountains and my beloved coyotes that trot along the golden sunlight shafts dancing their last purpling dances of the day in hills of palo verde and red clay. There is joy along the way for the beauty of the voices and laughter of children and the same golden hues turned light on the marble before the table of God.

Why Worship is Not a Practice: Benedictine Prayer

There is a truth always takes me by surprise on retreat. I normally retreat at Benedictine monasteries, as you have probably figured out by now.  For a week or so my life takes on the hidden habits of the monastery, the rhythms of prayer, work, meals, fasts, and feasts. This has been my habit for well over a dozen years, yet still I sit in the first hours of prayers and hurry.

Living my life as a priest and pastor, I pray daily and lead prayer multiple times every week. And in leading prayer and worship, I have developed and fought an awareness of how time is being used. I want the rhythm to move quick enough to keep people engaged and slow enough to allow God to engage us people. But the paranoia of leadership accumulates around the quick, not the slow.

You feel the uncomfortable shuffle when the service takes a little too long or drags in the middle. If you were to ask I suspect most of my parishioners would tell you that I tend toward the slow liturgy, pausing a little too long for some, patient with the pace of readers, willing to make the full point of the sermon, something always blamed on my Baptist roots. But I feel the pressure under my poker face. I want the boat to pick up and run on the Spirit’s wave and surf the whole congregation into God’s shore, even the lawyer who always gave me the length of sermon and service for five years in even tone.

But I sit there on retreat every time and get in a hurry.

Now, in the monastery I am not in charge of anything. I have no authority or useful knowledge. I am useless for anything but prayer and praise and waiting. I am only a human being, and I sincerely relish that freedom, except that I don’t.

I worry about the pauses and the pace. I want the whole thing to hurry up. Just last year I sat in one of the most beautiful sanctuaries in the world, nestled in a quirky community of lay and monastics of the Arizona desert. It was holy place lit by late dawn sun on adobe and tile and wood, handmade, and real.

And the organist took a few minutes in the pause of the morning service to find her music, or I think it was to find her music. Or it was just the natural breath of the pause or the abbot’s patience. And I started in, “Should I help?” “Maybe she should try the plug.” “What is taking so long?”

Every time. And then it hits me. As it originally occurred to me in a blizzard at St. Gregory’s in Three Rivers, Michigan, more than a decade before for the first of many times. This is going to go on forever.

The worship of the church is perpetual. We forget that in the moment to moment work of trying to keep everyone in the boat, engaged, and happy. We focus on the worshipper or the leader, or the pace or the pause or the comment that will come later. And we forget what the monastery remembers: it will always go on as it has always gone on.

Worship is not a practice. It is the breathing of the body of Christ. It is the very breath of creation, the Spirit’s inspiration of the cosmos itself being brought to sound by the voices of this particular congregation, community, or individual at prayer. And if we were silent, “the rocks would cry out.”

Worship should not be a practice anymore that breathing is. It is life and cannot reasonably be stopped. We only join in or not.

We may learn to do it better or worse, I suppose, but the judgement is not really ours. Worship is for God. It is the lifting up of the created thanks and praise to the Creator. It is the putting of ourselves in right relationship with God in joy and thanksgiving, and sometimes in brokenness and sorrow. But in all things, we worship God.

So I know this. I really do. But, every time I sit in retreat, I seem to forget. And the Psalms and their pauses, the monks and their patience remind me that tomorrow we will keep doing this, so relax and breathe.

A story. In the time of the collapse of the empire, the emperor brought in the capitol bishop and monk to tell them that the church’s prayers were failing to keep the barbarians at bay. The bishop cowered. But the old monk laughed.

“The tides of history may wash the empire away or not. But either way, when the sun comes up tomorrow, on whatever shore we blown up on, we will take our Psalters and praise God.”

 

 

The Sacrament of the Stranger

 

 

Jesus was in the middle of the Sermon on the Mount, when he turned to one of the minor themes that always confused Peter. “When you are in the market place, greet the people you don’t know. Say hello to the stranger, the orphan, the widow.”  Peter murmured and made a note to ask the master why this ridiculous turn. The law held no such command, and it violated common sense. 

Who knows what the stranger is doing, plotting, planning, whose side he’s on, how pure she is, what her intentions are? Common sense says, Greet those who matter or who might. Stay where it is safe and honorable. The marketplace is no place to get friendly.

We forget the dangers of the past, safely ensconced in the florescent lights and white tiles of the mall or the supermarket, how the market represented a place of familiarity and danger. People gathered from fields and towns together to buy and barter and sell. A place unregulated by mall cops and set prices. Traveling can only hint in our age of law and order at how unsafe a space could be for commerce. 

Yet, it is here that Jesus tells his students to greet strangers. The motif doesn’t end there. His followers will take that theme into their homes and along lonely roads. The saints and writers listed above are no complete list of the tales of wayfarers at the door or beggars along the way.

Unlike tales of warning, such as Beauty and the Beast, these tales were mostly of shifted perception and let to gifts and sacrifices for the stranger rather than curses. In these moments of gifts and roadside hospitality, the stranger is not merely the recipient of greeting, but rather Christ himself come to call the disciple to a different way of life.

A dark night and a difficult choice about letting in the unwanted unknown person in rags. Eventually, the stranger is revealed to be Christ, and the protagonist is changed.

Stories like this abound in the Christian tradition. Saints Francis, Brigid, and Alban, Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, even Flannery O’Connor all tell stories of strangers revealing Christ. This motif of the stranger points to a profound insight that hides in the open tradition of the church. 

The stranger becomes a sacrament, a moment where the presence of Christ is known. Like the Road to Emmaus in Luke 24:13 and following, the act of welcome and offering becomes a revelation of the new creation and resurrection of Christ. Emmaus may be the epitome of this doctrine, but it is not the only example. 

The Sacrament of the Stranger is far more biblical than Confirmation or Last Rites, yet we seldom hear about it in catechism. In the stranger, Christ is known. In loving the stranger, either through charity or hospitality, Christ is made known. 

Now, a debate lies between two factions in the church about the nature of sacrament. Does a sacrament cause grace? Or, as we say in the Episcopal catechism, is the sacrament only “an outwardly and visible sign of an inward and invisible grace”? This question is a key to our understanding of the nature of God’s interaction with the world. 

Is there a way to make God’s forgiveness and peace and salvation flow into a life? Or, is grace present and we mark it by these sacramental acts? Either way the stranger is a sacrament or least a potential one. 

The stranger’s presence is the possible revelation of God’s grace because we may see God if we are able or God is revealed to us. The stranger also affords us the opportunity to act in concert with God’s grace and reveal God in our action, causing grace to flow through us. 

We become both recipient and giver of grace, “from the believer’s heart with flow streams of living water.” 

This is why we must take care, as a people of faith, in how we treat the stranger. We live now in an age riven by fear and violence, especially toward those that are different from us. As a husband and father, I understand in visceral ways the violent protective response. A deeper question, the student of Jesus question, asks why the stranger makes us afraid as human beings, fearful enough that we are willing to act in violence.

For we are not mere human beings. We are followers of Jesus the Christ who know that every encounter with the stranger is not a moment to be feared, but an opportunity of grace, a moment of sacramental potential.

The politics of our age constantly call us toward chaotic violence in response to perceived threats. This politics of fear is pushing faith out of the public dialogue and the ethical reflections of our public figures. This worries me as a pastor and priest. All of us who would claim Jesus as Lord must return to a deeper sense of life and meaning and purpose that is rooted more deeply than fear.

We must approach the stranger with a greeting, trusting in our Lord’s command more than we trust the news feed and commentary of our age. Or we may find ourselves at heaven’s door and hear from within, “Away from me, for I never knew you. For I was a stranger, and you never greeted me. I was hungry, and you sent me away.”

I was hiking in Organ Pipe National Monument a dozen years ago when a cattle rancher pulled over to check on me and offer advice, along with a refill of water from his truck. We sat together and then walked for a while, me in a backpack headed for a camping site I had marked on a map, and he looking for two lost cows someone had spotted in the area. 

As we went, he started picking up loose debris, an empty water bottle, old shoes, a pair of women’s panties wrapped around the top of a cactus. He explained about the migrants and immigrants who left them as markers or just waste. He spoke with tears about the hardships of crossing the deserts without the gear on my back and the detailed maps I carried. He talked about the coyotes who would take their money and abandon them or sell them into contemporary slavery. He wept over a curled mustache and a lip of Skoal tobacco. 

It was the first time I had heard of most of this that in the decade hence became front page news. He wept for the stranger as we walked. His grief became a sacrament and sign of grace. He hated the injustice and violence and drugs and gangs that raped and pillaged the poor. He carried a pistol and told of being followed as he worked his land a few miles away. This rancher in a white Ford pickup embodied something of the kind of grace that seems most biblical to me. It was fierce and honest and dangerous. Like love.

When we speak of love, we often don’t think of the stranger. We think of our friends, people like us, family, a spouse. But we are called into a life that is in search of God and the Way of Jesus, a sacramental life.

 

 

The Rev. Daniel P. Richards

The Prayers of the People: We

Holy God whose names are beyond our knowing of names and whose sight is long
we pray beyond our power to pray with longing and indifference in equal measures
for those we know and those who are beyond our knowing
for a peace that none of us deserves or works for except in intentions

We loathe our enemies and mostly in your name we curse them but know in our way
that we should love them and occasionally in your name we leave our pews
and do something to restore the world we have only recently burnt down
with our equal measures and unequal retaliations

We offer our guns to you and our hearts and wait to see which you will pick this time
(please choose our guns for our hearts are weary from the rumors we hear and
take for fact despite all your scriptures we also hear but take for advice from distant
lands and hands that must have been very different from ours

or else they would understand the righteousness of our cause
for our enemies are greater than all other enemies and our times more wicked
than all other times and indicative of what we already knew) and while we are here
let us remember the poor and the homeless and dispossessed who look like us

Let your Spirit descend upon us and give us the guise of holiness we believe in
But keep your Word to yourself for we have a side we want to win. Amen.

Other Mountains

our tender oldest fragility

whom I could not convince that

thunder is just a data point

and not a danger when I am

running in the desert mountain rain

without her

while she sat fetal in a blanket against

the wet windows pretending

to watch tv

 

folded in blue static light

that blanket waits

and she is off to her own mountain and

we are proud wet eyed pretending

that her last hugs were only data points

and not reading the sky for signs

 

Trail Running with Benedict: Memorize your Maps

Where am I? 

Years ago I took a run that went terribly wrong. 

I left from an overnight campsite to go for a short run into a box canyon, thinking that an easy in and out, plus the arms of the canyon for navigation meant that I couldn’t get much wrong. 

I was wrong. 

Three miles dropping from an elevated campsite to desert floor and into the morning shadow of the entrance left me in awe as the colors of sunrise went in reverse and the sky took back that faded denim blue silk haze and then turned pink again. 

There was a barely damp stream to follow and the myriad little wildlife trails that form the quilt of landscapes. My GPS watch was useless inside the canyon, which wasn’t a surprise, and I was miles outside of cellphone use when I realized that the canyon did not look like my topographical map. 

The right map lay zipped up in a bag under my coffee kit and cheap titanium cook-set that I had spent the predawn trying to remove eggs from again. 

Turning around at that point I realized how trail led on to trail along a stream that was actually several low runs that branched into several openings. 

“By the rivers of Babylon, we hung our harps in the trees . . . “ 

I always listen to music or sing when I run. I timed my paces growing up on Amazing Grace and Guns ’n Roses. Now I pulled my earphones out and sat down. 

Stop moving. 

We need maps, and we need to know how to use them. I was saved that day by advice I was given in the back of Arizona Outfitters by a grizzled old man, “Memorize your map. Know it, at least roughly, when you head out. Practice remembering where you are in relation to land marks and rehearsing directions.” 

I sat and remembered. 

We aren’t big on maps today. We have GPS and GLONASS, Russian by the way, and cell phones and the internet. Maps seem to be going the way of the astrolabe. But I learned to navigate by paper, and I was told to know my routes at the very least. 

The Bible is best really thought of as a map. It is not the journey. It is not the destination.  Nor is it a satellite picture. A map is a depiction based on experience, specifically those called to intentionally set down that experience in images. 

The map may help us find our way, but it is not going to take a single step for us. I know lots of people who love maps but don’t go anywhere. I have known a few Christians who love the Bible but don’t use it to navigate. 

This may be the greatest threat to our faith. We are losing the Bible to those who think that a life of faith can be lived without regard for it, and to those whose regard for it goes untested by living an actual life.

The Bible  is not our destination. It points the way, but it is not where we are going. Very little is actually said about where we are headed. There is about enough to make a good poem about where we go when we die, and that little bit is about as concrete as poetry. There is more, much more, about the Day of the Lord, but it is contradictory, based on whether the image is coming when the people needed hope or a warning. Basically one day we will stand before God and give an account for our lives.

Having needed both hope and warnings, I know that “Wait til your Dad gets home” could feel either way as a child. 

The Bible is also not a satellite photograph of the current landscape. It is a very old book. Actually it is variously old, very old, and ancient. Some of it is even undatable, despite the cavalier attitude of cheap study Bibles and occasional scholars. Because it is not an exact image, we end up having to make decisions based on what we can know and what we see in the present moment. 

The Bible is also incredibly sketchy. The Bible is sketchy in the sense of Rembrandt, not in the sense of that van with the hand lettered Ice Cream (Not for Adults) sign. It is outlines of stories at times, and full detailed representations at others. Sometimes the Bible shows this incredibly nuanced understanding of human motivations and at others is not at all concerned with nuance or detail. And the style, substance, purpose, and format change wildly book to book, or even within books. 

So why read it? Why use this old, very old, ancient map in an age of iPhones and Google Earth? The Bible is the best witness to the ways of God in the landscape of human existence that we know. Those who disregard it have never read it. Those who have never read it cannot know how it gives life and understanding, even direction, among the swift and varied changes of life. 

It is the revelation of God’s will and intent, contours and ways. To know it is to know how others have moved through the landscapes of life with joy and abundance.  And how they have not. Real maps show you what others have known, and so does the Bible. But real maps cannot pass through the darkest valleys for you or reveal the glories of the sunsets to you. They simply help you find your way.

I ran that morning on memory, following the edges of the canyon walls I had run my fingers along in the weeks leading up to the hike. I stumbled and fell because I had to keep watching the landscape turn and dance, but as I turned back up the arm of the canyon’s entrance under a brutal noonday sun, I thanked God for that grizzled crank who told me to memorize my maps.

My beard is somewhat grizzled these days, so listen to me. Memorize your maps. Know your routes. Rehearse your directions and landmarks. And come home safely.