November 18, 2018
Prayer is not easy. It is not easy to define because it is both simple and complex. If we think of it at either extreme, we will not understand prayer. It often is not easy to do, either. Or at least, it is not easy to recognize that we are praying. I am standing before you as one example of someone who once thought they didn’t know how to pray. I can tell you, though, the place I was standing when I learned otherwise.
Today, we have Hannah’s story about prayer that begs to be heard, begs to be understood. Hannah prays twice. In the first, we have a visual—we can only see her praying because she speaks no “words.” In the second, we hear her prayer— and it is a SONG.
In Hannah’s first prayer, this is what we see: a woman, alone, intentionally coming to the sanctuary, a safe place, to honestly present herself directly before her Lord. If we only stand at the entrance to watch Hannah, we like Eli, might not see a person in prayer. But if we are willing to go further in to look closer, to look into Hannah’s eyes, to look into her heart, we will see, we might even feel, we might even hear: an unspeakable distress, a bitter weeping, a great anxiety, a troubled self-image, a broken heart, a deep longing, a desperate sadness, a crushed aching and pleading spirit.
This is a picture of Hannah pouring out her heart to God, a prayer of petition and oblation. But no doubt, the picture captures some of our own silent prayers—yours and mine. I understand this prayer because I’ve been there myself, and I’ve been with fiends who have prayed without words, directly from their heart. I’m thinking you also understand this prayer for the same reasons.
In Hannah’s second prayer, time has passed, she has given birth to a new life, and she sings her prayer of adoration and praise and thanksgiving with gusto--“bursting with God-news!” . . . and “dancing her salvation,” is the way Eugene Peterson puts it in The Message Bible. I understand this prayer, too. I can also burst with God-news. I’ve seen some of you bursting with God-news.
Our lectionary places Hannah’s Song as our Response to her first prayer—we responded this morning with a powerful song about a God who embraces the world in Love, turns the world upside down, and invites us to see it as God intends it to be. It is a song that will later influence The Song of Mary, the Magnificat.
There is a part of Hannah’s story that I haven’t mentioned. We need to look again at Hannah’s first prayer. Eli, the priest, finally understands that Hannah is not drunk, but instead has been praying. Once understood, Eli sends Hannah on her way to go in peace, sends her out with a blessing and a prayer of his own that God will grant Hannah’s petition. Scripture tells us that Hannah turned to leave the sanctuary “. . . and her countenance was sad no longer.”
July 08, 2018
In our Gospel this morning, we have two very different state of affairs. The first results in NO life-giving power. The second results in EXTRAORDINARY life-giving power. Both situations are important to our understanding of the Gospel. So, we are going to think through them both--by starting in the middle.
Jesus sends the twelve disciples out on a journey to share his message with folks in other communities. He sends them out in pairs but tells them to take nothing except a staff and a pair of sandals.
Two things came to mind as I read Jesus’ instructions:
About a month ago, I caught a glimpse of a news clip on ABC: some popular televangelist said he needed a $54 million jet, so he could spread the gospel.
Secondly, I remembered a cartoon that a friend gave to me eight years ago. I still have it. It depicts Moses standing midway on Mt. Sinai with his staff in hand, speaking to the smoking mountaintop. Moses says, “I’m just saying if you had told me we’d be wandering in the desert for 40 years, I would have brought my comfortable shoes.”
A Falcon Jet and comfortable shoes ------------------------ a staff and sandals
But, we have something the first disciples didn’t have: we have experienced the faithfulness of God through Christ crucified and Christ risen. So, with this experience in mind, it should give us pause to be more understanding of the folks in Jesus’ hometown. I can easily put myself into their shoes. Actually, I have been in their shoes. Perhaps you have, too. Mark doesn’t tell us what Jesus is saying in the synagogue—only that folks who heard it were “astounded” by what they heard. “Astounded”—they were shocked, surprised, filled with wonder, stunned, shaken—perhaps shaken to their core.
The Gospel tells us these hometown folks first recognized the wisdom and power in Jesus’ words, but then something happened to suck ALL the power right out of the moment. They chose to turn away, to deny the wisdom they had heard—perhaps out of fear of change, perhaps out of stubbornness to hang onto their own expectations, perhaps out of self-doubts, perhaps not having the courage to step into a path they didn’t fully understand. Perhaps it was the power of standing in this new kind of presence that was just too overwhelming at that moment—felt too new, too strong, too soon.
What is clear though, is the faithfulness of Jesus reaching out to the hometown folks, and they do NOT reach back.
February 04, 2018
If you read the Gospels like I read them, by putting yourself into the story and imagining what it would be like, what it would feel like, to BE one of its characters, then, the Gospel of Mark can be daunting in its quick, sharp movements from scene to scene. You might want to say to Mark something like: wait a minute, slow down a bit so my heart can catch up with my feet.
We haven’t made it through chapter one yet, but already, John the Baptist has shocked us awake by telling us that someone else will be plunging us, not into water, but plunging us in the Holy Spirit. We have stood by the river Jordan as witnesses of Jesus’ baptism, and if we were listening, we’ve heard a heavenly voice proclaiming a heavenly vision. In the space of two verses, we have been whisked away to spend 40 days in the wilderness with Jesus. We’ve heard the bad news that John the Baptist has been arrested, and we’ve heard Jesus tell us that He brings Good News. In a flash, we’ve witnessed Jesus’ calling four disciples to follow him, and we’ve seen how quickly they respond without question. We’ve followed Jesus and his companions to Capernaum and sat with others, in awe, as Jesus, we are told, speaks with authority.
There is a sense of urgency in Mark’s writing. And chances are, if we don’t take the 50 minutes it requires to read the whole Gospel of Mark in one sitting, we will misunderstand this sense of urgency as a rushing through too much too soon. If on the other hand, we know the rest of the story, and we take the time to pause at key moments, we will better glean the sense of an urgent need for faithfulness. We will be able to see the quickness in Mark’s steps, not as a rush through life, but rather as an urgent need for our faithfulness to a life filled with service to one another, with Jesus at our center.
There are two scenarios in this morning’s section of Chapter 1 that gives us a much-needed pause to allow our hearts to catch up with our feet.
The first pause involves touch; the second involves prayer.
Simon’s mother-in-law is in bed with a fever, and Jesus touches her hand with his hand, and she suddenly becomes a model of faithfulness to service. Imagine that, a hand touching another hand, and someone unexpectedly has the strength to be of service to others. Pause to picture the other stories in the Gospels that speak of healing by touch. Pause to picture yourself reaching out to take Jesus’ hand into your own hand. Pause to remember when someone in your community reached out to touch you, and the touch gave you strength you didn’t know you had. Pause to remember someone you know who needs a loving touch.
There are myriad ways to touch one another.
December 24, 2017
Mary, an ordinary young woman, chose to be obedient to the Spirit of God. To the surprising initiative of God, Mary said, “Yes.”
Mary said “yes” to the awful realization of being vulnerable.
Mary said “yes” to being courageous in the awful face of fear.
Mary said “yes” to God’s wondrous intent to dwell in human flesh.
Mary said “yes” to being held in God’s wonderous Grace while she set out on her journey.
Mary’s calling went something like this:
God sends someone named Gabriel to say to Mary: “The Lord is with you.” This is a blessing, is it not? To say that the Lord is with you is a blessing. But we also know that throughout biblical history, being blessed can be as painful as it is peaceful. To be blessed is to be used by God to bless the world. That is our constant calling—to bless the world, to bless the world in our own unique way.
Mary is thoroughly shaken by the holy presence, and she wonders what it all means for her. We can sense both fear and awe, intertwined, in her first reaction. There is a Hebrew word that has no equivalent in our English language that describes such an experience. For us, our language implies two separate experiences, you either experience fear or you experience awe. But the Hebrew term, yirah, combines both to describe one experience. Moses’ experience at the burning bush, in the presence of God, might be one example. Another example of yirah is my own experience standing at more than 10,000 feet above sea level looking across the Western Highlands of Guatemala. It was toward the end of my 10-day pilgrimage, and I had traveled almost 500 miles with a prayer on my lips: Lord, I want to see with the eyes of my heart, so I can see the hope in my life’s purpose. I did see with the eyes of my heart, and it hurt. I did see the hope in my purpose, and it shook me to my core.
“Do not be afraid,” the messenger said to Mary. I think Mary was experiencing yirah. And in her heart she knows to savor yirah, to recognize the type of fear she feels and to work with it, lean into it knowing that she is touching sacred ground within. “Perfect love casts out fear” we are told. Perfect love casts out fear. And perfect love, drawn from our very center, blesses the world.
Think about Mary’s awesome experience. She is being invited into a radical, life-transforming experience to have a part in the fulfillment of God’s saving purpose in history. Through tangible, physical realities of her life, the kingdom of God would become a tangible reality in this world.
October 08, 2017
One of my favorite little books is Parker Palmer’s Let Your Life Speak. I have underlines on almost every page. Some of those underlined sections also have handwritten notes in the margins—some with question marks, some with exclamation points. Some of those pages also have a little sticky tab to mark its special place. Some of those sticky tabs have an asterisk penciled on its visible edge to highlight its importance even more. And in the front of the book, I have in my own handwriting, paraphrased a couple of insights from its pages that I want to remember: First, we are led to truth by our weaknesses as well as our strengths.[i] And second, self-care is good stewardship of the gift you were put on earth to offer to others.[ii]
The gift we were put on earth to offer others. Every single one of us has a special gift, sometimes hidden like a buried treasure, that requires digging out. Palmer says that being good stewards of that gift means a life-long journey of listening to our true self--that person God created us to be, the image of God at the center of our being--and to be willing to give it the care it requires, not only for ourselves but for the many others whose lives we touch. Sometimes, that might mean turning around when we find ourselves out of sync with it. Sometimes, it isn’t easy to turn. We must ask ourselves tough questions like: Who am I, the really, real me? And where am I in relation to God, to myself, and to others?
Palmer would say that this is all done in community. Allowing ourselves to be led to truth, intentionally being good stewards of our God-given selves, and purposefully living out our lives in the company of God and others—touching others, allowing others to touch us—that is how we build a community with a shared future, and leadership is a shared responsibility.
We do leadership when we care enough about something to want to make a difference. We do leadership when we have a passion for a particular future. We do leadership when we feel compelled to change a situation for the better. Leadership is not just for some of us, it is our common destiny.
What I mean by destiny comes from another book. I have it underlined, tabbed and asterisked--you can tell a lot about who I am by borrowing my books. It is Rule #29 from Shams of Tabriz’s 40 Rules of Love. Perhaps you haven’t heard of Shams. He mentored Rumi, the 13th-century Sufi poet who is loved by many faith traditions.
[i] Parker Palmer’s Let Your Life Speak, page 22.
[ii] Parker Palmer’s Let Your Life Speak, page 30.
September 03, 2017
In our church cycle of time, today we are at the 13th Sunday after Pentecost, “Ordinary” time or “Counted” time we sometimes call it, with 12 more weeks before we reach Advent, and our church calendar begins again. I’ve been curious about that. At first, I questioned why we intentionally celebrated the essential ups and downs by name—Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Good Friday, Easter—why we celebrated receiving the Holy Spirit, by name, calling it Pentecost, and then, walked through the rest of the calendar—half a year—simply counting the weeks and calling it ordinary. Are our lives not continually transformed by the Holy Spirit, breathed into us at Pentecost, and yet, we count the weeks and call it ordinary?
But our Gospel reading this morning reminds us of the whole story. In the midst of our counted time, God draws our attention into an essential reminder, a teachable moment that has the power to keep us on our way. In just eight verses, we hear Jesus teaching his disciples about life’s journey. Jesus is teaching them about the road to Jerusalem, about the road through Jerusalem, about the road that leads to New Life.
July 23, 2017
Psalm 139 is one of my favorite prayers in the Psalter. It declares a complete trust in God’s care, petitions God for help, and sings praises to God. It speaks of an intimate relationship with our all-knowing, always present God. The part we heard today is the prayer that my journey group often prays together before we work on interpreting our dreams. We pray this Psalm because only God knows all there is to know about us, and our dreams, even our nightmares, we believe, are messages to help us recognize what we need to change in our innermost self—a slow, thoughtful, mysterious process of transformation that never ends.
There is a part of Psalm 139 that we did not hear this morning because it is left out of our Sunday lectionary. Without buffer or warning, right in the middle of its praise, it turns to profound cursing: “O that you would kill the wicked, O God. . . I hate them with perfect hatred.” [i] A simplistic reading of this, or any Scripture for that matter, has caused all kinds of problems. But we want to read for depth. Just like my journey group, we want to glean the innermost meaning of God’s word. So, we want to pay attention to what is missing in our reading, we want to pay attention to the tough stuff. I couldn’t always do that—I flat out skipped the cursing parts because I didn’t know what to do with them. But then, I experienced the Psalms.
[i] Psalm 139: 19—21.
July 02, 2017
A morning devotional from one of the monks at the Society of St. John the Evangelist recently got my attention: “God of Love,” he prayed, “Your gaze meets mine at every turn and your presence inflames my heart.” I think something like this prayer is happening in our gospel this morning. Here’s why:
Matthew has framed his story by telling us in his very first chapter that, through Jesus, God will be with us. [i] In the last chapter, Matthew concludes his story with The Great Commission [ii] where the resurrected Jesus, in his final meeting with his disciples, sends them out to make all the nations—Jews and non-Jews--into disciples. And in this context, Jesus tells the disciples that he will be with them every single day. [iii] Matthew is talking about an ongoing ministry of the Church that includes us, as disciples, walking with Jesus—that is Matthew’s big picture.
[i] Matthew 1:23, “Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,” which means, “God is with us.”
[ii] Matthew 28: 16-20, The Commissioning of the Disciples
[iii] Matthew 28: 20, “. . . And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
February 19, 2017
The first thing I learned when I walked into an Episcopal Church was the awesome recognition that I had finally stepped into a place that I had been yearning for, aching for. I learned that in this tradition, I had permission to ask hard questions about God and what a relationship with God means. I learned to read the Bible not only with question marks, but also with God-given imagination using my reason, my own life experiences, tradition, and especially, input from the community of faith—to find my own story within the biblical narrative.
Our Old Testament reading for today is from, of all things, Leviticus. If you don’t know much about Leviticus, it is probably because it doesn’t show up very often in our Sunday lectionary, and depending upon your perspective, you might be horrified or grateful for it. The first thing we heard from Leviticus this morning is the command: “Be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.” Well, what does it mean to be holy? What does it mean to be holy because God is holy? Can we, mere mortals, mere dust, be holy?
October 09, 2016
October 9, 2016, Trinity Cathedral, Luke 17: 11--19
Rev. Deb Cooper
"Art is life; life is art." That is how Mimo Khair describes her work.i Mimo is a Lebanese street photographer who has traveled the world capturing real-life human faces that illustrate moments of human connection that can change the way we see one another.
I discovered Mimo's work two years ago when I sat down at my computer at an unusual time of day for me, and clicked on a yahoo news link--something I had NEVER done before. One of Mimo's photographs captured my attention: a young Syrian girl, probably a Muslim, living in a refugee camp in Lebanon. The thing that drew me to the photograph was the word "LOVE" written in English across her fingers--capital "L-O'V-E." The caption informed me that the other marks on her hand was also the word LOVE written in Arabic.
King David’s appetite got the better of him. What he wanted was good, but not for him.
In the Summa Theologiae, Thomas Aquinas affirms that love was God’s reason for the making of the world and that his goodness permeates creation—but in pieces, disassembled like a jigsaw puzzle. He writes: “The perfect goodness that exists one and unbroken in God can exist in creatures only in a multitude of fragmented ways.”
So David was drawn to a fragmentary good. His desire was one that we instinctively appreciate, because without it none of us would be here, but the wrongness of his acting on it was severe. Our appetites cause trouble when we are heedless of the good of others, and the puzzle as a whole.
What is love? “Willing the good” of another person, according to Aquinas. David’s motive wouldn’t count as love. He wanted Bathsheba for himself. Perhaps her feelings were reciprocal, but David left her husband’s good, his kingdom’s good, and other puzzle pieces, neglected on the floor. Inconveniently, a pregnancy occurred. Plan A was to give Uriah, the husband, grounds to believe he was the father. When that plan failed the king successfully arranged to have him killed in battle.
Evil, according to Aquinas, is a corruption of the good. “Power tends to corrupt,” as Lord Acton warned, and in this story we see why. Only a king could be tempted to sin like David did, because it would take a king to pull it off. David’s failure is common to men in high places, shadowing the lives and times of several of our recent presidents and even Martin Luther King. Like kings and presidents, prophets are susceptible.
When I started SUMMA, the high school theological debate camp, I named it partly for the Summa Theologiae––“the Summa,” for short. SUMMA, the camp, highlights faith’s intellectual dimension. According to the Summa, the book, our intellect is like an appetite. As David’s eye was attracted to the beauty of Bathsheba, our mind’s eye is drawn to truth. We call this attraction “reason.” Aquinas writes; “As the good denotes that towards which the appetite tends, so the true denotes that towards which the intellect tends.”
If truth is the sun, sometimes our sight of it is fogged by other appetites. David had broken three of the ten commandments (the sixth, seventh, and tenth, if you are keeping score) but he was oblivious. Nathan the prophet found a way to lift the fog. Lawyer-like, he caught the king’s attention with the case of a poor, honest sharecropper and his beloved lamb. David’s first job had been tending sheep, so he could relate. A selfish plantation owner took the poor man’s lamb to feed his party guests. The king was livid. “Is this for real?” “For real.” David’s appetite for justice burned. “That Simon Legree will pay!” he swore. Coming from a king that was a verdict, not an empty threat. Nathan had him. He drew out his mirror and held it to the king’s face. Look close, he said. You are that man. “The moment of truth.”
“We must no longer be children,” Paul writes to the Ephesians. “We must grow up,” he says, by “speaking the truth in love.” At SUMMA, the camp, the highest honor, “the SUMMA Prize,” is awarded to the camper who best shows us how that’s done. The prize is one thousand dollars. That is one way to make our point that truth and love are intertwined.
Often, finding truth takes expertise: science, logic, math. Aquinas’s expertise was logic and it took him years to learn. Not everyone would have the skill even if they afford the time. By God’s design, love requires no expertise. Everyone can understand and anyone can do it if they will. “It is evident,” Aquinas writes, “that not all are able to labor at learning and for that reason Christ has given a short law. Everyone can know this law and no one may be excused from observing it based on ignorance. This is the law of divine love.”
For a counterpoint, Franklin Roosevelt once compared our nation’s moral progress to our scientific progress unfavorably, which might suggest that finding truth is easier than loving. According to Jon Meacham, Roosevelt had drafted a speech to give on Thomas Jefferson’s birthday, April 13. This was 1945. The speech was discovered on Roosevelt’s desk in Warm Springs, Georgia, April 12, the day he died. This is FDR:
Today, science has brought all the different quarters of the globe so close together that it is impossible to isolate them one from another . . . Today we are faced with the preeminent fact that, if civilization is to survive, we must cultivate the science of human relationships—the ability of all peoples, of all kinds, to live together and work together in the same world, at peace. . . . Let us move forward with strong and active faith.
That’s from Meacham’s book The Soul of America: The Battle for our Better Angels. From 1776 to now, the book tracks our national ups and downs in answering to what what Lincoln called “the better angels of our nature.” Meacham wrote the book because he thinks we need to listen much more closely to those better angels now. Who could disagree?
Aquinas and Roosevelt were both right. Aquinas, because only an Isaac Newton could discover calculus; and Roosevelt because, once discovered, truth is ours to keep. Libraries are full of it. Love is more like breakfast—we have to make it every morning. Aquinas called theology the “Queen of Sciences” because it's the science that has to reckon with both the library and the kitchen.
SUMMA, the camp, is a crash course in truth detection. I tell the students: “I didn’t bring you here to tell you what to think, but to show you how.” They learn the three parts of an argument: claim, evidence, and warrant. Claim: ‘What are you trying to get me to believe?’ Evidence: ‘What are you giving me to go on?’ Warrant: ‘How does the evidence support the claim?’
For example, claim: I say “Tomorrow it will rain.” Evidence: You ask “Why should I believe that?” I answer: “Open the window and take a whiff.” You open the window. “Oh,” you say, “the paper mill.” Warrant: By what logic does this smell support my claim? It’s called an “inference from sign.” Does the Pine Bluff Paper Mill cause rain? No, but it lets us know the wind is from the south, and southern winds bring moisture from the Gulf of Mexico. Summer heat means afternoon convection: hot air rising from the earth. Add moisture and boom! Summer thunderstorms.
In one sentence in our gospel reading, Jesus makes two claims: (1) God sent me. (2) Faith in me is a sign of God’s activity in the heart and mind of the believer. “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent,” he says. Again: “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.” Smartly, people ask Jesus for evidence to support these claims. Moses gave us evidence, they remind him, out there in the wilderness. Our ancestors were hungry and thirsty. Miraculously, he gave them manna for bread and water from a boulder. So show us. “What sign are you going to give us that we may see it and believe in you?”
For John, the gospel writer, this question is like a student’s who had dozed off in class. It is summer school, the air conditioning is out and the windows are open. The air is hot, moist, and heavy with that familiar smell. The boy wakes up and asks the teacher to answer something she had just explained in detail: “So why should we believe that it will rain tomorrow?”
Jesus’ questioners had been dozing. In John’s gospel, signs followed everywhere he went. In Cana, he turned water into wine. In Capernaum, he healed a dying child; in Jerusalem, it was a sick old man too weak to walk. The latest sign had been the most spectacular so far, and these people who were asking for a sign had either seen or heard about it. From five loaves and two fish, five thousand hungry appetites were satisfied. In a fog, these interrogators fail to draw the inference from sign.
Jesus backs up and tries another tack. With Moses still in mind, he offers an analogy. Analogies are warrants that work by comparison. “This is like that.” You know what its like to hungry and be given bread? They nod, still digesting loaves that he had given. I am like that he says. “Those who come to me will never hunger and those who believe in me will never thirst,” he promises. He isn’t talking now about digestion, but about that activity of God in human hearts and minds––also called the Holy Spirit.
By this, he puts us on watch for good that answers to a longing deeper than hunger even, and more thrilling even than that dizzy dancing feeling that draws us to each other sometimes. Powerful and necessary though they are, these appetites, they point to only fragments of the good we need as human beings. We are made for more.
We don’t need faith to know this. Aristotle knew it. Reason, he taught, is like an appetite for good things greater than our emotional enjoyment and even our physical survival.
We do not live by bread alone. Reason shows us that much. Faith, hope, love—the activity of God in the minds and hearts of all believers––now show us more: eternal truth, everlasting goodness, and transcendent beauty. They are like coffee, eggs, and bacon cooking in the kitchen early in the morning, smells wafting up the stairs into the bedroom as we’re dressing, getting ready for the day.