An Everlasting Covenant

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a reflection on Isaiah 24:4-11 and the tradition of prophetic lament 

The prophet we know as Isaiah, whose words we read this morning, lived nearly three thousand years ago, somewhere in the 8th century BCE. And yet, his words speak intimately to our life today. It’s not hard to imagine someone like Isaiah standing on a street corner downtown, maybe out in front of RiteAid, holding up a cardboard sign that says, “The earth is polluted beneath its inhabitants, for they have violated an everlasting covenant!” I’m pretty sure I saw that guy downtown last week! 

It’s also not difficult to picture the reaction of those who are casually walking by: all the good citizens of Salem averting their eyes as they hurry on their way.

Letʼs face it: a prophet like Isaiah is not the guy you want to run into while you are doing your weekly errands. This is why guidance counselors never suggest that students choose a career as a prophet. Talk about a lonely and thankless job! The job of the prophet is to stand in the midst of our busyness, in the midst of our preoccupation, and call our attention to the painful things we’d rather not think about. 

In Isaiahʼs case, the message is that the kingdom of Judah and its capital, Jerusalem, have been destroyed by the Assyrians and that the people of Israel have been subjugated by these invaders. Now, if it’s true that your homeland has been overrun and devastated by an invading army, it’s not immediately obvious why you’d need a prophet to stand in the middle of the marketplace and announce this event. I think it’s a pretty safe bet that everyone listening to the prophet Isaiah prophet already knew about the great tragedy that had befallen God’s people.

But while Isaiah might at first glance look like some ancient version of the tabloid press as he stands there shouting out apocalyptic headlines, it turns out that the prophet is not standing in the marketplace in order to share a news story. On the contrary, Isaiah is asking the people of God to take a closer and possibly difficult look at the tragedy they are already experiencing. And it seems to me that here, in the midst of our own difficult and tragic season, it might be helpful for us to take a closer look at what our friend Isaiah is up to, and to see whether he might have some advice for our own spiritual practice in this painful and frightening time. 

It turns out that Isaiah, as he stands on the street corner shouting out a list of sorrows, is calling us back to an ancient and paradoxical tradition of prophetic lament. The collection of writings we know as the Bible offers several different types of lament: there are psalms of lament; there are books such as Job and Ruth that are filled with personal lament;  there is even an entire book of Lamentations. Has anybody cracked the book of Lamentations lately? I haven’t either! We tend to skip over these texts in our yearly cycle of scripture readings because they are so very painful to read. But our tradition is filled with cries of the human heart in the midst of painful situations. And when a cry of lament comes from a prophet, as it does from Isaiah today, the prophetʼs job is to help us cry out in the midst of our own painful catastrophes: a cry that opens our hearts to the healing presence of God. 

The deep wisdom of our biblical tradition—a wisdom that has become rather unpopular in our day—is that when we resist the urge to distract ourselves with entertainment and busyness; when we hold still long enough to let our hearts break open in pain, then we become vessels through which the healing presence of God pours into the world. And I believe that this spiritual practice—this practice of lament, this practice of holding still and crying out in the midst of our pain—I believe this is a spiritual practice that the world needs us to reclaim, and to offer, today. 

So. How might we do that? How might we access the ancient spiritual wisdom of prophetic lament in response to a global pandemic, catastrophic climate change, and growing income inequality, just to name a few painful situations? How might we harness the power of this ancient spiritual practice to help us respond to our current predicament with compassion, and justice, and hope? 

To answer this question, I want to talk a little bit about pain. I want to revisit some deep truths we know about pain – from our spiritual ancestors, from our modern-day prophets, and from modern neuroscience and physiology. Because the way we respond to pain has everything to do with how we respond to the dangerous and difficult problems that face us today. 

Human beings, of course, are wired to perceive and respond to danger. We see an oncoming truck and without even thinking, we leap out of the way. We feel a burning sensation, and we automatically pull our hand away from the fire. This ability to perceive danger and instantly respond is essential to our survival as individuals and as a species. 

But there’s a catch. Our ability to respond appropriately to danger depends on an unblocked connection between our perception of pain and our ability to take immediate action. If we donʼt feel the pain, we will fail to act. If our hand is numb, and our perception of heat is therefore blocked, we wonʼt pull our hand away from a flame. In the same way, if we ourselves have not personally been affected by the coronavirus, if we happen to live in a city where we ourselves do not see the destructive force of this pandemic, then we may not act to protect our most vulnerable neighbors. Human beings cannot respond to a pain we do not feel. 

The problem is that today, our perception of danger is often blocked. Because the dangers facing our world are so enormous, and because we receive distressing information from so many sources all the time, we can easily feel overwhelmed. The very pain, the very prophecies, that should make us leap into collective action on behalf of the earth, and on behalf of our neighbors, instead make us want to numb out and run away. We turn off the news; we pull down the blinds; we distract ourselves with work, with entertainment, with alcohol or food, with online shopping, with anything that will take our minds off the pain of the world. 

This is understandable, of course. Particularly in this extremely frightening time. It is a natural human instinct to want to protect ourselves from the pain all around us. No wonder we want to run the other way when we see that prophet on the street corner.

And yet, our tradition offers us an alternative response. Through the ancient practice of lament, our tradition offers us a path that can help us learn to bear the pain of the world in ways that are healing for everyone. Through this practice—through a Christ-like practice of bearing the pain of the world—we become ready to respond in the ways God calls us to respond. As we allow the practice of lament to break our hearts open, we invite the presence and power of God to pour into the world through us. The wisdom of the prophets is that in our pain, in the breaking open of our hearts, we ourselves become the doorway through which the current of Godʼs love is now free to flow into the world.  And what a beautiful gift that is to a world that needs us. 

I’d like to invite you to join me now as we experiment with this ancient practice of lament. As you’ll see, this practice takes place in four distinct movements. Four movements that can open us to the healing presence of God in this and in every difficult time. If you’d like to settle into a comfortable place for prayer, I’ll lead you through this practice.

As we come into this time of prayer, I invite you to turn your attention inward to your own heart and to notice any pain, any painful situation that is calling for your attention this day. It might be something in your own life. It might be something in the life of the world. See if you can call this situation to mind.

The first movement in our prayer of lament is to offer an honest, unvarnished statement of this pain you are facing. I invite you to go ahead and speak this pain out loud, knowing that the naming of this pain is the first step in opening yourself to God.

And now that you have named the pain that is on your heart, see if you can invite the presence of God to enter into this situation. There is no need to tell God what to do; you can trust that God knows what type of divine action is needed. Simply invite the Divine Presence, whatever that looks like or feels like to you, to infuse this situation that you are praying about. See if you can picture this in your mind in as much detail as you can.

When you are ready, enter the third movement of this prayer of lament, which is to remember times in the past — in your own past or in the collective past — when you have felt or seen the presence of God healing and blessing a painful or broken situation. See if you can recall this healing, this blessing, in all its specific detail.

And finally, the fourth movement of our prayer of lament is to thank God in advance for God’s healing in this situation. You can speak this prayer aloud if you like: a prayer of thanksgiving in anticipation of God’s healing and redeeming presence…a healing presence that even now is flowing in and through our hearts…a healing presence that even now is flowing into the world.

Beloved, I hope you will remember that you can return to this practice of lament as often as you like. Remember that this ancient practice is meant for the healing of your own heart, and for the healing of this beautiful, broken, always-holy world that God so loves. Amen.

 

 

Hard Times

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a reflection on Exodus 17:1-7 for May 17, 2020, Sixth Sunday of Easter

Recorded Sermon and Guided Prayers:

It’s quite a scene that takes place out on the rock at Mt. Horeb this morning. A rock that might have remained anonymous were it not for the fact that Moses decides, at the end of a really long, crummy day, to name that place “Massah and Meribah.” Which translates pretty well as “Testing and Quarreling.”

Imagine for a moment that you are Moses. You’ve just struck the rock with your staff, and all of a sudden, clear, miraculous water has come pouring out. All around you, God’s thirsty people are leaping for joy, drinking deeply of that sweet water. You, Moses, are wiping your brow because — whew! —  it looks like the people aren’t going to stone you after all! (Or, at least, not today…) And now it’s time for you to name the place where this great miracle has happened. I don’t know about you, but I’m not sure I would have named that place “Testing and Quarreling.” I think I would have been tempted to name it something like:  “Water from the rock!” Or, “Wow, Look what God has done!” Or maybe, “Hooray! We’re not thirsty anymore!”

But Moses doesn’t pick any of these names. Instead, Moses names that place “Massah and Meribah.” “Testing and Quarreling.” This is something like what would happen if, instead of celebrating the anniversary of our nation’s independence every year on the 4th of July, we decided to throw a picnic to commemorate the arrival of COVID-19: the date the first case reached our shores, or the date the unemployment rates reached a record high. Can you imagine writing down that date and throwing a party to commemorate it every year? We don’t do this! We humans do not usually choose to commemorate our most terrifying times. We like to remember the joyful, triumphant moments of our lives: the first day on a new job, the day a child is born. But the times when we are sorely tested? The times when we quarrel with God? The long months or years of unemployment and despair? The long weeks of being trapped in the house with restless kids who grumble about their schoolwork? It is unlikely that we will be throwing a party every year to commemorate these. Most likely, we will try and forget these trials as soon as new life begins to arrive. 

But here’s Moses this morning, watching his people splashing around in the miraculous spring of water, and he decides to forever name this place “Testing and Quarreling.” So that for generations to come, people will say to their children, “Look, here it is: the place where we almost stoned Moses!” “Check it out!” they’ll say. “Here’s the very place where we actually wished we were slaves again in Egypt. Remember that day?” they’ll ask each other. “This is the place where we wondered out loud if God was with us or not. This is the place we named after our time of trial and despair—as if those things were holy. As if that hard, thirsty time deserved to be remembered forever.”

It sounds like a pretty crazy thing to do. But I want to think about this for a minute. Just in case maybe our friend Moses knew what he was doing out there on that rock. Just in case he has something to offer us as we live through our own time of testing and quarreling and wondering if God is with us.

What if somebody wrote down this ancient story of testing and quarreling because they knew that one day, we might need it? What if our spiritual ancestors knew that one day, we too might come to a dry and thirsty time? A spring and summer when the swimming pools and beaches and river trails remained closed because of a new and deadly virus. A summer when we would be so thirsty for healing, so brokenhearted for the hungry and homeless sleeping in the streets that even slavery in Egypt —where at least everybody had a roof over their head and three meals a day—even slavery in Egypt doesn’t sound much worse than a land where the most vulnerable have no access to health care and there are children in every city and town who are going to bed hungry every night. 

Here’s what I think. I think our spiritual ancestors knew a thing or two about despair. And that’s why they wrote down this story for us. Those people out there in the wilderness were at the end of their collective rope when they cried out to God. Those people knew what it feels like to wander in the desert of despair for so long that you forget what hope feels like; what it tastes like. And I think they knew that one day, we would need to hear the story of what happened to them in their hour of deep despair. They knew we’d need a story like this one, a story that whispers to us: “Even now, even here in this time and place that seems God-forsaken…even  now,” the ancestors whisper. “The waters of God’s healing are beginning to flow. Maybe you can’t see them yet,” they tell us. “Because those waters are still deep within the rock. But trust us,” they say. “Even now, the waters of healing are rising, and they will flow again.”

What our ancestors knew is that it’s not only water we need in a thirsty time. We need the right story.  A healing story. When we’re in the middle of our own wilderness time—when we feel like crying out, “Hey, God! Are you with us, or not?”—this is precisely the kind of story that can save your life. It might even be the kind of story that can save the world.

Here’s the thing. Everywhere we turn, we will find a story. Every headline, every news feed, every neighbor is telling a story about what is possible and what is not. About what is hopeless, about who or what is God forsaken. And the power we have—the God-given power that no one can take from us—is the power to decide, every day, which story we will live into. And you can bet that if we fail to intentionally choose our own story, then Wall Street and the tabloid press and every power-hungry cynic with a microphone will be more than happy to choose our story for us and to feed that hopeless story to us sound byte by sound byte.

Friends, It’s up to us, together, to decide whether we’re going to keep on swallowing, and retelling, a story of despair. A story of, “There’s nothing we can do.” What would happen if we pledged, just like our ancestors did at their darkest, thirstiest hour, to start telling a story of wild hope? A story of almost unimaginable healing and grace springing like water from the hard rock of this desperate season?

I think you already know which story the world needs. I bet you already have that story in you. I’m pretty sure that if you look back over your own life, you’ll find your own story of a desperate wilderness time. Maybe it was a time in your own life when you thought you could not take another thirsty step. Maybe it was a time in the life of a congregation you loved that was going through a difficult season. Maybe it’s a story about a community you loved that was fighting for human justice and dignity—I know you have that story in you because I’ve seen how you pack up sack lunches and how you make sure that our unhoused neighbors have a hot meal and a porta-potty. I bet some of you have a story about marching arm in arm with your sisters and brothers, singing freedom songs through dangerous streets even though you were not at all sure you would survive. I bet you have a story of a time in your life, a time in the life of the people you love, when right in the midst of your despair, the waters of change, the waters of new life, began to flow again. 

That, my friends, is the story the world needs to hear from you right now. It’s the story your children and grandchildren need to hear from you as you watch the news together this season. A story about how you came through your own time of Testing and Quarreling. A story about how badly you wanted to just give up. A story about how just then, somebody—out of desperation or frustration—picked up a stick and struck the melting asphalt and somebody else plucked a note on a guitar and at that moment a song, a freedom song, came gushing out like water from the rock. This is the story you need to tell: your own story of wild, determined, crazy hope. 

Maybe the most hopeful, radical thing you can do this season is to tell the story of your own testing. Maybe the most healing thing you can do this season is to find a way—pick up the phone, write a song, start a blog—find a way to tell your own story of wild hope to somebody who is dying of thirst and despair; somebody who even now is crying out, “Is the Lord with us or not?” That person needs to hear your story of a time when you were tested. That person needs to hear you say, “The Lord was with me in that terrible, lonely place, and that’s how I know the Lord is with you, too. And so am I.” 

And if it turns out that right now, you are the one who is thirsting for a new story, I hope you’ll pick up your church directory, dial a phone number, and ask your friends for a story that will quench your thirst. 

And if you find this week that your own spring of hope is running dry, I encourage you to look just a little farther than the easy headlines that come at you all day long. In desperate times, it matters—it matters a lot—which stories we feed ourselves and our kids every day. At a time like this, I don’t believe we can afford to feast on poisonous stories of despair. Because our kids are looking to us to show them what kind of story we will live, what kind of people we will become, in our own time of Testing and Quarreling as we wait for the healing waters of new life to flow once again. 

And so we pray to know, as our ancestors knew, that our most challenging places are also holy. May the stories of our lives, and the stories of our most difficult, holy trials, become living water for a thirsting world. Amen.

God Only Knows

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a reflection on Hosea 11:3-4 for Mother’s Day 2020

Sermon audio with guided prayers:

When I was growing up, my grandma had a wooden sign hanging above her kitchen sink. It read: “God can’t be everywhere, so He made grandmas.”

I did not grow up in a particularly religious family. In fact, that sign is one of the very few places I can remember where God was mentioned at all. But even as a very small child, I knew that sign spoke the truth. Because from the time I was born, it was my grandma who reliably loved me the way  a tender, mothering God loves God’s own children in our scripture reading this morning. All through my childhood, it was my grandma who over and over again plucked me out of harm’s way, who carried me to safety, and who embodied for me the very presence of God. 

I don’t know who gave my grandmother that sign, but it lived there above her kitchen sink for decades. And every time I saw it,  that sign gave me the words to name what we might call the incarnation: the mysterious truth that the presence and power of God come to us in and through our own human bodies and through the very body of this world.

In church, we tend to  talk a lot about the incarnation during the Advent and Christmas seasons, when it’s all sweetness and light: a tiny baby arrives to embody God’s love among us. During the Christmas season, we discover that it’s fairly easy to talk about the idea of incarnation when things are going pretty well. Sure, there’s a close call when Herod finds out about the Christ child, but for the most part, that little baby is safe and whole all season long. For a few weeks as Christmas approaches, the incarnation seems like a pretty safe bet. 

But then we come to Lent and Holy Week, and that little baby grows up and heads into some very difficult, very dangerous places. And as he goes there, he asks us, always, to follow. All through Holy Week, all the way to the cross and beyond, the Christ of God walks right into the heart of the most difficult things we human beings ever encounter: abandonment, rejection, doubt, excruciating pain. And it turns out that in fact, this is the wild proposition of the incarnation: that God is willing to go all the way for us. That the Christ of God is going to be with us no matter what. That there is nowhere we can go and nothing we can experience, no matter how terrible, that can separate us from the love of God. 

Now, I’m not going to ask you to take my word for it. Sure, I could remind you that God’s tender, mothering love is here for you even in your darkest moments. I could promise you that even now, God is lifting the whole world to God’s own cheek as millions suffer the pain and grief of a worldwide pandemic. But I think you already know this. I believe that if you are reading this today, somewhere in your life you had a person — maybe a grandma, an aunt, an uncle, a big brother or sister — who embodied God’s tender, mothering love for you. If you are here today, I’m willing to bet that at your own most terrifying moment, someone showed up to embody the love of God for you. In that moment, when you weren’t sure you wanted to go on, someone — maybe your roommate, maybe your great aunt —  someone showed up and embodied for you the unconditional, mothering love of God. 

And I wonder if you can remember who that was. Can you remember a moment when someone who might have looked the other way instead took you by the hand and stayed beside you through your darkest days?  Can you remember one who, in the midst of your brokenness and pain, looked into your eyes and saw you not broken but beautiful, and holy, and whole?  

At that moment, when someone embodied God’s tender, mothering love for you — at that very moment, you were not only saved. You were also empowered. In the moment you received that healing love, you were also empowered to go out and heal another; to look another in the eye and say: Your pain is also mine, and I am going with you all the way through it and out the other side. And so is God.

This, friends, is the unconditional, mothering love of God that the prophet Hosea speaks of this morning. This is the love of God that we humans are made to embody, to enflesh, to incarnate for one another and for all creatures on earth. 

And I hope you will remember this day that sometimes, it is precisely in our darkest hours that we learn the truth about how God’s love arrives to save and to heal us. A friend who went through her own dark hours puts it this way: I had a vision about the world, she writes. It came to me one night as if a little door opened and I looked through and eavesdropped on the truth. I saw that the world was constantly falling apart, it was always in a state of little things always falling apart, and then there were these brigades of individual human angels, with kind eyes, apples and stitches, repairing, fixing, mending, patting, bandaging the wounds of the world, and putting it back together, piece by tiny piece. (-Alicia Paulson) 

I wonder if today, on this strangely quiet Mother’s Day, you too might eavesdrop on the truth that lies behind that little door. The truth that the world is filled with those who embody for us the tender, mothering, healing love of God. I wonder if you can name them now as they care for the world. The doctors and nurses donning their masks each morning as they stride bravely into hospital rooms. Grandparents all over the world who are pitching in with extra patience and morning Zoom calls for toddlers who haven’t been to a playground in weeks and for teenagers who have been home from school since March. Teachers who are working around the clock to reassure students who are lonely and sad and wondering when they will see their classmates again.  Artists who are so freely sharing their music, their dances, their songs all over the internet because they know the healing power of beauty and joy. I bet you can see them everywhere you look this day: the ones who make the incarnation real. The humans who even now embody in their very flesh the tender, healing presence of God for us, just when we need it most. 

At the very end of her life, my grandma lay in a hospital that was a good hour’s drive from my home. One night during the last week of her life, after she was asleep, I got into my car to drive myself back to my own house. As I pulled out of the hospital parking lot, tired and sad, I flipped on the radio for company. And all of a sudden, of all the songs on all the radio stations that might have been playing at that moment—there were the Beach Boys, singing, of all things, “God Only Knows.” Remember? God only knows what I’d be without you…

God only knows what any of us would be without the ones who pick us up and save us—save us—with the tender, mothering, unconditional love of God. And so, for the ones who show up, and who go with us all the way, we say, this Mother’s Day and always: Thanks be to God.

They Broke Bread at Home

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We are making our way through the Great 50 Days of Easter: the season in which we tend to spend some time with the Acts of the Apostles. In this book, we hear tales of what is often referred to as the early church: the years in which Jesus’ followers are gradually realizing that their spiritual practice is leading them out of their synagogues and into new ways of gathering to name and celebrate the mystery of the risen Christ who walks among them still.

And while the book of Acts does in fact describe the first centuries of the Jesus movement, it can be a bit confusing for us modern folks to talk about this movement as the early “church.” It’s confusing for us because when we hear the word “church,” we tend to think of a building: a structure that is specifically built for the purpose of communal worship; a structure in which people gather in a large group every week. But it’s important to remember that this meaning of the word “church” does not apply to what was happening in the first few centuries of the Jesus movement. It was not until the third century, when the Roman Emperor Constantine legalized Christian worship that Jesus’ followers were even allowed to own property in common. As far as we know, the first time that any building was devoted to Christian gatherings was in the year 240, and even this building began its existence as a private family house.

So what were Jesus’ followers doing during those early centuries? They were meeting each week in very small groups, often family groups, to celebrate the day of resurrection and to share a simple meal around the table in their homes. In other words, the church began at home. The church began when people gathered around their own dining tables, breaking bread and telling stories about Jesus as they sought to remember all that he had taught them. As we read in the book of Acts this morning: “they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts.”

And we can be sure that when they gathered around those tables and broke their daily bread, they told the story about how on his last night with his friends, Jesus took a loaf of bread, gave thanks for it, broke it and passed it around, saying, Do this and remember me.

Do this, Jesus says. Friends, as we gather in our own homes this season, and as we gather around our own tables on this first Sunday of the month, it is important to remember that when Jesus says “do this,” what he has in mind is very, very close to the communion that we ourselves we will celebrate this very day. Not in a church building with special chalices for juice and a lacy cloth to cover the bread; not on a candlelit altar raised up above the pews. No. When Jesus says “do this,” the “this” he refers to is the kind of meal Jesus shared with his friends every day. When Jesus breaks bread with his friends, the bread he breaks is their ordinary, everyday bread. When Jesus gathers with his friends, their ordinary meal becomes a sacrament not because it takes place in a special building or because it is served on a fancy plate. On that last night with his friends, Jesus tells them that everywhere they go, wherever they find themselves, whenever they give thanks to God for the gifts of the earth, then their meal becomes a sacrament: a moment in which we recognize and name the holiness that is already and always present in the very body of the world and in the gifts of the earth.

When we break and bless and share communion bread and juice, our prayers do not wash it off and make it clean; our prayers do not transform that bread from something ordinary into something holy. What Jesus is trying to tell his friends and followers is that the gifts of the earth are already holy. And it is our sacred task, our unique call as human beings with the gift of language, to name — out loud — the inherent holiness of the world and to protect it with everything we’ve got.

Jesus’ insistence on naming this holiness of ordinary bread and wine; his insistence on calling these holy and instructing his followers to do the same makes perfect sense when we remember that Jesus was Jewish all his life. Every day of his life, Jesus was a practicing Jew, as were all the friends and family members he gathered and fed at dinner tables and on grassy hillsides where they broke and shared loaves and fishes and sweet wine. When Jesus blessed the bread and wine, he was continuing the ancient practice of his people: naming and thanking God as the Source of Life; naming every meal as a gift from God; and blessing the God whose living presence in the very body of the world makes all life — every blossom and branch, every fruit and and grain — holy. Already, and always, holy. An invisible holiness that lives in every atom of the world and that we are called, now and forever, to name and to see and to protect.

Even today, observant Jews continue this practice. Not just on holidays. Not just at sabbath tables. Not just for special, ceremonial foods. No. To this very day, Jewish spiritual practice offers specific blessings for each and every ordinary gift of nourishment. I’m not talking about a generic grace or blessing before and after meals, though these, too, are offered. I’m talking about a specific blessing for every food, even the most ordinary.

Are you sitting on your back deck, eating an apple? Then the sacred words to say are: Blessed are You, Source of Life, who brings forth the fruit of the trees. However, if you happen to be sitting on that very same deck eating a raisin, then the words of the blessing are different: Blessed are you, Source of Life, who brings forth the fruit of the vine. Eating a french fry? Well, then: Blessed are you, Source of life, who brings forth the fruits of the earth.

Yes, it’s true. Observant Jews are expected to know whether the snack they are eating grows on a tree, on a vine, or even below the ground. As you might imagine, this requires careful attention. And that’s the whole point! No matter how ordinary these gifts may seem, say the rabbis. Do not take them for granted. Do not forget that every loaf of bread and cup of wine; every fish and ephah of barley is holy, says Jesus. Do this, he says as he lifts and blesses that ordinary loaf of bread. Do this every time you gather at any table: say a blessing, give thanks, and name the invisible holiness that infuses every particle of this world.

Stephen Mitchell, who is a translator of many sacred scriptures, likes to say that “prayer is a quality of attention that makes so much room for the given that it can appear as gift.” Imagine: a quality of attention that makes so much room for what is given that we can see it clearly for what it really is: a sacred gift. Every time we do as Jesus asks us to do; every time we bring this quality of prayerful attention to the gifts of the table — any table, anywhere — then we see bread and wine and fruit and fish for what they really are: sacred gifts from the body of the world that is infused, through and through, with the invisible presence of God. An invisible holiness and grace that we are called to remember and to name every time we receive the food that nourishes our bodies with the gift of life.

Today is the first Sunday of the month; the day when we are accustomed to breaking bread together in a beloved church building, with special chalices and plates. Today, as we gather around our own tables in our own homes, I believe we are called to remember that Jesus did the same, as did his earliest followers. Today, we are called to remember, perhaps in a new and newly tangible way, that when Jesus lifts and blesses that ordinary loaf of bread, he promises that he is right here among us. At every table in every home. In every grain of wheat and kernel of corn. In every rice cake and tortilla. In the first shoots of asparagus and in the tiny raspberries just forming on the cane. Do this, Jesus says. And remember that I am with you in the blessing and sharing of every meal, every gift of this good earth, everywhere. Now and forever, world without end. Thanks be to God!

 

For the Beauty of the Earth

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This season marks my second spring in Oregon. I’m not sure why, but of all the things people told me when I moved here, no one thought to mention that Oregon has what is possibly the most beautiful spring of any place on earth. I’ve lived a lot of places, but I have never seen anything like the the trees that blossom here in waves of color week after week: puffs of cherry blossoms announce the start of the season, drifting to the ground like pink snow just as the dogwoods and apples and lilacs begin to bloom. As we have gathered online this season, I have been asking young and old alike what it is that  is nourishing your soul during this strangely lonely season. Invariably, people name this blossoming spring: the one that is daily showering us with sweetness and beauty even as we grieve for the sickness and suffering that have brought so much uncertainty and disruption to our days. This season, we are being stretched and challenged to simultaneously hold both of these realities in our hearts and in our minds: the extravagant beauty of this world, as well as its heartbreaking sorrow. 

Here in the midst of this particular spring, and on the 50th anniversary of the first Earth Day observance, I have been thinking about the writer E.B. White who, in 1969, uttered these memorable words:  “If the world were merely seductive, that would be easy. If it were merely challenging, that would be no problem. But I arise in the morning torn between a desire to improve the world and a desire to enjoy the world. This makes it hard to plan the day.” 

Hard to plan the day, indeed! As we strive to observe Earth Day as best we can this year — in the midst of a pandemic; in the midst of ongoing deforestation, unprecedented wildfires, and ecosystem collapse — I’d like to claim E.B. White as a kindred spirit and wise teacher. I have heard that White himself was skeptical about organized religion. But I believe that he perfectly articulates our dilemma, and our call, as people of faith. On the one hand, we must always root our prayers and our daily spiritual practice in gratefulness. Throughout the ages, this has been the core discipline that opens our hearts to the gift of life while restoring us to intimate relationship with the Giver who is the very Source of life itself.

At the same time, we are called, always, to act on behalf of the earth itself, and on behalf of the earth’s most vulnerable. In particular, we are called to act on behalf of those creatures and places that have no vote and no voice.

It seems to me that we often draw upon our faith traditions when it comes time to savor and give thanks for the gifts of this world. But when it comes time to rush out the door and into action, into the saving side of the equation, it can be tempting to leave our faith practices behind as we join the secular efforts to save the earth and all her creatures. Of course, there is nothing wrong with the saving tools of the scientific and secular world. We absolutely need those gifts and tools for the work ahead. 

But I am pretty sure that as people of faith, we have an additional gift to offer in our collective effort to save this world that we so love. A gift that is particularly necessary now that the work ahead seems so overwhelming. As communities of faith, the gift we are called to offer is this: the conviction that we are not alone in this. We are not ever alone.  

No matter how dire the predictions of climate catastrophe, no matter how daunting the odds of success, we are called to walk into the world, and to work in the world, as channels for the divine presence. In our hearts, in our minds, in our bodies, we are called to be no less than open channels for the presence of God that is always offering to pour itself into the world through us.

Now, don’t get me wrong. Of course, it is absolutely possible to go out and care for the earth in all kinds of saving and beautiful ways without ever intentionally invoking the presence and power of God. Beautiful people are doing this every day! But I am pretty sure that this world needs everything we’ve got, every practice we have honed over millennia of spiritual inquiry. The world needs the sacred gift we have to offer: a treasure chest of spiritual practices that open us to the very source of life itself. Practices that open us to the divine source of strength, courage, discernment, and yes, even power — the very power of God that is always offering to work with us and through us on behalf of the world. 

I think that’s a pretty great tool we have in our collective tool box. But here’s the catch. (There’s always a small catch, right?) As far as I can tell, this divine presence and power is so gentle, so respectful, that God will not override our free will. For better or worse, God will not force God’s self on us even for our own good. Looking around at the world, it seems pretty clear that God will not override our human decisions, even the most terrible ones. Instead, God seems to stand ready, awaiting our invitation to co-create with us a more humane, more just, more sustainable life on this planet.

And if this is true, then our intentional spiritual practice makes all the difference. We can invite the presence and power of God to guide and strengthen us as we set out on behalf of the earth. When we choose to stand in the midst of our pain and fear, when we choose to stand in the midst of our collective global cry of lament and let our hearts break open to God — in that moment, we become the doorway through which the divine presence rushes in to guide and strengthen us. In this moment of openness, God rushes in to work through us in whatever conditions and in whatever broken places on all the earth we find ourselves. And I believe that our willingness to practice this — to practice inviting in the presence and power of God — just might give us the courage and the strength we need to act, together, in the face of overwhelming obstacles. 

So I want to offer you a practice for this season in which the earth itself is calling both for our attention and our care. I invite you to close your eyes and begin to notice your breathing. And as you return to your body, to your breath, see if you can invite God to be with you in this time of prayer. Whatever that divine presence looks like or feels like to you, welcome it now. Welcome the One who is always as near to you as your next breath. The One who knows the unique gifts that you alone have to offer the world.

And now, see if you can picture the earth itself, the earth that needs you. Maybe you can see the planet as it looks from outer space: so blue, so beautiful. And now, ask the Spirit to show you a particular part of the earth or a particular part of earth’s family that is in need of healing this day. It might be a place…or a creature…an ecosystem. Ask to be shown any being or any place that needs your particular attention and care. Trust that whatever comes first to your mind is the Spirit’s call to you today. 

As you hold this place or being in your heart, ask whether there is anything you are called to do to support God’s healing work in this situation. No need to force an answer; it is enough to be quietly receptive, just holding the question with openness and curiosity….knowing that you can come back anytime to listen again.

Now, take a moment to note anything you feel called to do in response to this situation.

Finally, take a moment to envision all the others, all around the world, who are working together to heal this place, this creature, this situation. You might envision a vast community of compassion and care encircling the whole earth, holding all beings in the healing light of God. And as you envision this circle of compassion and action, know that you are not alone. 

As you begin to release your meditation on the community of earth and return to your particular spot on earth,  I offer you this prayer…

As we set out together to savor and to save this world, may we remember to call with confidence upon the presence and the power of the One we call the Source of Life: the One who moment to moment creates, sustains, and blesses all life and every life…now and forever, world without end. Amen. 

Joy Comes in the Morning

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Portrait of Mary Magdalene from the icon of dancing saints at St. Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church in San Francisco. Created by artist Mark Dukes with the people of St. Gregory’s

A reflection on John 20:11-18 for the Day of Resurrection

This past Thursday night, as the shadows deepened over the last hours of Jesus’ life, we read these familiar words from Psalm 30, often translated this way: Weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes with the morning. 

These are ancient words of comfort; beautiful words that we ourselves often remember in times of sorrow.  But I suspect that even the ancient psalmist would understand if we woke up today feeling a bit skeptical about that promise of morning joy. Skeptical because instead of exuberant celebration, we awakened this Easter morning to a somber and strangely silent world.

Surely Mary, the one known as the Magdalene, would understand our disappointment and confusion. Mary, who knows a thing or two about the kind of weeping, the kind of sorrow, that does not suddenly vanish with the first light of dawn.

I wonder if we can imagine the depth of the sorrow Mary must endure on that first Easter morning. She has seen her beloved friend despised and broken by the cruelty of the Roman police state. She has watched in agony as Jesus’ beloved body is destroyed by the very worst things we humans do to each other—the very worst things we still do to one another out of hatred and fear. When we meet Mary this morning, her sorrow is nearly more than she can bear.

But when we lose the ones we love most—the ones who are the love of our life, the soul of our souls—when those dearest ones die, the only thing left to do with all our love is to go and tend to the precious body of the one we have lost. 

And so, on the first day of the week, in the thick darkness of early morning, Mary goes with her friends back to the tomb to retrieve Jesus’ body. But when they arrive, they find that his body is gone. I wonder if we can even imagine Mary’s pain in this moment. The only thing she has left is the body of the one she loves, and now…even this has been taken from her. After everything they have been through together, who could stand to lose this one last precious thing? The pain and fear are enough to make anyone want to run away. Which is what everybody does…except Mary. Jesus’ beloved friend Mary, the Magdalene. Mary alone stays at the empty, gaping tomb. And there, she lets her own body do what any body would. She weeps. 

If you have ever grieved for a loss you thought was more than you could bear, then you know the kind of weeping Mary does this morning. The kind that overtakes your body with heaving sobs. The kind that drenches you, body and soul, in tears.

If you have been there, if you have ever found yourself crying into a bath towel instead of a tissue box, then you know that this is not the moment for a psalmist to appear, promising that “joy comes in the morning.”

Unless…unless that psalmist arrives this morning precisely to teach us what joy actually is, and what it is not.

Here in modern times, we tend to confuse joy with happiness or pleasure. Happiness and pleasure are what we feel when things are going our way, when we get what we want: the promotion; the concert tickets; two scoops of ice cream with hot fudge and a cherry on top. Of course, there is nothing wrong with these moments of happiness and pleasure; they are good gifts from a loving God. But happiness and pleasure are not what the psalmist means by joy.

Here’s the best definition of the word joy I’ve ever heard: Joy is the recognition of an almost unbearable beauty. (1) I’ll say that again. Joy is the recognition of an almost unbearable beauty. Unexpected, undeserved, unpurchased, almost unbearable beauty that suddenly appears to us, unbidden. The recognition of an almost unbearable beauty that can come upon us at any time, in any circumstances. Even in the midst of our deepest sorrow.

This is the beauty that Mary sees this morning right through her unspeakable pain. This is the beauty Mary sees this morning right through the curtain of her tears.

And I wonder if Mary has something to teach us as this strange Easter day dawns without trumpet fanfares or crowded churches or potted lilies cascading down the chancel steps. Mary, who of all the disciples has the courage and the spiritual tenacity to stay put in the midst of terror and confusion and unspeakable grief.  I believe that Mary is the teacher we need this morning. The one who comes to show us the real meaning of joy, and teaches us how to claim it.

Mary, Jesus whispers. And right there, through a river of tears, she sees Jesus standing before her, calling her name. Mary, he says. Mary.

And so Mary runs to him. What else would anyone do? And she holds him. I don’t know about you, but whenever I hear this story, I always wish Jesus would give Mary a little more time. Just another minute or two to hold him again. But Jesus says no. Don’t cling to me, he tells her. Don’t cling.

Friends, this is not happiness. This is not pleasure. Mary is going to have to let her beloved Jesus go. Again.

Even so, Mary whispers to us this morning. Even now, Mary says, as our own Easter day unfolds in silence. Even now, as the church doors remain closed and locked; even now, as millions are sick and suffering all over the world; even as we ourselves awaken on this strange Easter morning confused and afraid and grieving. Even so, Mary says. Joy is here.

No joy could be more surprising than the joy that comes to Mary and to us this Easter morning in the midst of our grief and our pain: the joy of the Risen One who will spend eternity trying to help us understand that God is alive in the very body of this world; that God and world are eternally joined, cell by cell, heart by heart, right here in the midst of the grit, and the brokenness, and the pain, and yes—the unbearable beauty of this world. 

Friends, joy does not wait for our pain to stop; it does not wait for our honest tears to stop. Joy arrives simply because this is the very nature of God: to continually pour the gift of God’s own self into the body of this world. So that even now, even through the curtain of our own tears, we may be surprised by the unbearable beauty of this fragile life we share. Beauty that even now—especially now—breaks our hearts open with joy. 

This is what it means to be an Easter people: to be willing to receive this joy, even now. To be willing this Easter morning to proclaim the living presence of the Christ who has gone through every suffering we can imagine or invent for ourselves; the one who has gone through hell itself, and who arrives now, whispering our names over the sound of our anguished weeping.

And maybe, just for a moment, in the sweet light of this spring morning or the chatter of nesting birds, we glimpse it. Maybe there are tears in our eyes we can’t explain because the whole, crazy story of resurrection and new life makes no sense at all because you know as well as I do that the hospitals are overflowing and there are hungry people in the streets and back in Washington all the old arguments are going around—about relief packages and taxes and the stock market and oil prices—and right in the middle of it all someone calls our name. Beloved, he whispers.

And in that moment, we catch a glimpse of this almost unbearable beauty: the beauty of God’s own presence, God’s unconditional healing love pouring into the body of this broken world, offering life, offering a new way, even through our tears. And our response to such a gift can only be a strange, tenacious joy.

This is the promise we claim this Easter day. I will be with you, says the Christ of God. I am right here with you in the body of this broken, desperate, always holy world that God so loves. Now and forever, world without end.

This is the joy that is ours to claim this day. The almost unspeakable joy that is ours to receive and to share this day and always.

Amen. And Alleluia.

 

 

(1)  This definition, with a slight change of wording, is borrowed from Zadie Smith in her article, “Some Notes on Attunement: A voyage around Joni Mitchell,” New Yorker, December 10, 2012.