Hope in the Wilderness

san_juan_bautista_greco_bellas_artes_valencia_c-jpg_1306973099A sermon for the Second Sunday of Advent, December 8, 2019.  The scriptures are Isaiah 11:1-10, Psalm 72:1-7, 18-19, Romans 15:4-13, and Matthew 3:1-12.

Listen to the sermon HERE.

This week, there’s been a lot of Handel at Holy Trinity. On Friday night, the Manhattan Choral Ensemble presented Handel’s Messiah in its entirety, with instruments and soloists.  This afternoon, they will present the choruses and other seasonal music.  And there were various rehearsals last week.

One afternoon, I walked by Draesel Hall, and one of the soloists was practicing with the strings.  I sang along quietly, as it was one of my favorite pieces: “Comfort ye.”

It’s from Part I of Messiah as a tenor sings words from Isaiah 40, words of comfort:  “Comfort ye, comfort ye my people, saith your God. Speak ye comfortably to Jerusalem, and cry unto her, that her warfare is accomplished, that her iniquity is pardoned: for she hath received of the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.”

But then the music stops. There’s a breath, and the soloist proclaims a shift, a change, something new is about to happen: “The voice of him that crieth in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.”

For Isaiah, God’s word comes from the wilderness, and it must have come as a shock to the people of Israel, because they were in a bad place, what must have felt like a forgotten place.  Most Biblical scholars agree that by the time of Isaiah’s writing, Jerusalem had already been conquered by Assyria. Jerusalem, the city that symbolized God’s presence, the holy city of David, so long imagined impenetrable. Jerusalem, high up on a hill, was compared to a tree, a great tree, that by the time of Isaiah’s writing had been cut down to a stump. This once-great city was now a stump with no life in it, a stump used as firewood for Assyria. For Jerusalem and her inhabitants, it was as though they were in a wilderness—a wilderness of lost wealth, a wilderness of lost confidence and a wilderness of lost faith. And so, they really needed God’s word.

The wilderness is unruly. It is where the demons live. It is a place of chaos and disorder. The wilderness is to be feared. The people of Israel wander for 40 years in the wilderness. Jesus is tempted in the wilderness.

But while the wilderness can be scary and strange, God’s word comes from the wilderness. Isaiah’s message is that new life is ahead, renewal, growth, life with God. Sorrow and affliction will be turned into beauty and glory.

In a similar way, the word of God comes to John the Baptist in the wilderness, and John seems to keep one foot in that wilderness experience even as he preached to the villages and cities. He never forgets where he came from, or from where he originally heard God. John’s is the voice of one “crying in the wilderness: Prepare the way of the Lord.”

It’s in the wild place that John gains strength. He finds clarity and purpose there. He finds God there, in the wild.

That can be a helpful thing to remember when we find ourselves in some kind of wilderness. It can be mean survival—certainly spiritual survival—sometimes simply to remember that God comes to us in those places that seem wild, uncharted, and dangerous.

Especially this time of year, we can encounter the wilderness. It can take many forms. We might be caught in a place of loneliness that feels every bit as desolate as a desert. Or, here at the end of the year, we might feel lost in bills, hitting a goal at work or reaching a quota; or maybe it’s the seemingly endless Christmas list, or the maze of other people’s expectations.  Maybe we find ourselves at one of those holiday gatherings where it seems like everyone else seems to be enjoying themselves, but to us the room just looks barren. Perhaps health makes you feel like you’re in the wilderness—your own or someone else’s.

Who knows what it is that puts us in the wilderness, that makes us feel like we’ve been sent into exile—the death of a friend or loved one, problems at work, problems in a relationship, family dynamics, or just the stress of this time of year—whatever it might be, the wilderness can seem real, remote and removed.

But especially when in the wilderness, the word of God is there—maybe whispering, maybe faint, but faithful, nonetheless.  Recall that the music of Handel begins with “Prepare. Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.” But the music continues, “prepare because” — “every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be brought low, the crooked, straight; the rough, smooth, and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.” All flesh, all people, every one of us—will see the salvation, the saving strength, the saving love, the saving mercy and redemption of God.

Light is coming. Love is coming. God is coming into our world and into our lives in new ways. So get ready. Make some room. Company is coming, and we’ll never be quite the same again.  It is the company of God’s presence in Christ.

The holidays can be difficult… but if we listen carefully, we can always hear the hope.

Advent is a season of hope. It’s a time when we hear again God’s promise and plan for saving the world, and for saving each one of us. Whether we find ourselves in the wilderness only briefly, or for a longer time, may we know a glimmer of God’s grace this season. May we prepare our hearts through turning and turning again toward God—so that we might know God, and know his love for us and for the world.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

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Faith like Noah

Noah by LMA sermon for the First Sunday of Advent, December 1, 2019.  The scripture readings are Isaiah 2:1-5, Psalm 122, Romans 13:11-14, and Matthew 24:36-44.

Listen to the sermon HERE.

On the second floor of the Metropolitan Museum, there’s a gallery of Italian paintings that has a portrait of Noah. It’s one of four Old Testament figures painted in the fifteenth century by an early Gothic/late Renaissance painter named Lorenzo Monaco (c. 1370 – c. 1425). What I like about the four portraits is that each one shows a patriarch, holding an image that gives a clue of his identity. Moses holds the stone tablets of the Ten Commandments—easy enough to identify. Abraham’s symbol makes sense, as it is his son Isaac. King David, who tradition says wrote some of the Psalms and was a musician, is shown holding a harp or zither.

But then, there’s Noah. You might think Noah would be pictures with animals, or at least a dove. Maybe a rainbow, or surely, the Ark.  But instead, Noah is holding a simple building with a door and window.  It’s meant to represent the Church: the ark as church.

In the scriptures, Peter explicitly links Noah’s ark with the Church, noting that just as Noah’s wooden ark saved people by bringing them through water into new life; the Church saves people by the wood of Christ’s Cross and the water of baptism, bringing us to new life. The early Church built on this imagery and many see in architecture such as our own, a ceiling that looks a lot like an inverted ship. In fact, this long section to the church that stretches from the sanctuary (proper) to the back of the church, or narthex, is called the “nave,” from the Latin “navis,” or ship and was meant to portray the reality that the Church is a ship, protecting those inside it from the waves and buffets of the world. Some have even suggested the flying buttresses on a building like Notre Dame, or even the two buttresses at Holy Trinity represent oars, continuing the ship symbolism.

All of this—this talk of Noah, and arks, and ships, and us—is to draw our attention to the Gospel, in which Jesus says points to Noah as an example of someone who had faith. Be like Noah, Jesus suggests: waiting in faith.

Now, I doubt that many people in Jesus’ day really thought much about whether Noah was an actual person, or whether he literally built and ark and filled it with animals. But I bet a lot of people could relate to Noah—those who heard the Hebrew scriptures, those who listened to Jesus, and us. We can relate to Noah as someone who gets a vague that God is nudging him to action. Once Noah comes to terms with this, he gets busy: even in the face of others who might think he’s crazy, preparations are made, things are put into place, and then it’s time to wait. It’s time to wait for God to act, to move, to make things happen, to point to the next step.

I bet a lot of us have been at that place—we weren’t being asked to build an ark, but it might have felt just as insane. Go to that city. Pursue a relationship with that person. Stop working in this field and go in this new direction. If we’ve ever felt God’s “holy nudge,” then there’s been that sense of presence at the beginning, and then it’s time to wait. For Noah, it meant wondering whether the rains would really come. Would there really be floods? Would his preparation and faithfulness really pay off? And then what would life be like after all the drama, when the waters are dried up and the animals are set free?

Jesus points to this waiting place as a kind of “holy waiting room.” It’s that time in-between, after one has felt God’s presence at the beginning, but before one has begun to feel God’s presence moving into the next step. It is a scary place and a vulnerable place. Jesus knows that whether we’re talking about Noah or us, or perhaps even himself, it’s difficult to wait, to watch and to listen for God. But we can practice at it. And we can learn to wait in faith.

Today, we begin the season of Advent, when the Church invites us to practice these spiritual disciplines of waiting, watching and listening. Advent helps us live with the in-between. The Church remembers and retells the story of the coming of a Messiah, the one who was born in the manger, Jesus of Nazareth. But the other aspect of our waiting and watching has to do with the Second and Final coming of Jesus, as is hinted in the prophetic scriptures and especially in the Revelation to John.

The liturgy helps us to recall the first coming of Christ.
Our prayers also help us to stretch forward for the second coming.
But over and over again, Jesus tells us not to live in the past or the future, but in the “holy now.”

Jesus speaks of the kingdom of God as among us. He says, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” And elsewhere, “The kingdom of God is very near you.” He gets very specific in Luke’s Gospel, saying, “The kingdom of God is not coming with signs to be observed; nor will they say, “Lo, here it is!’ or ‘There!’ for behold, the kingdom of God is in the midst of you!” Jesus invited apostles, disciples, strangers, friends and enemies, to see the kingdom of God that was already around them. And that’s his invitation to us.

In today’s Gospel Jesus cautions that we should be ready, but it’s not for most of us to go up on a hill and wait for God to come. In describing how we are to wait, Jesus describes some in the field (from which one is taken to be with God.) Others are grinding meal or making bread, and again, one is taken to be with God. We could continue the list—one will be teaching, while one is taken away. Another will be in a meeting, one at a store, another watching the children, and another working outside. In short, since we do not know when or how or where, it is for us to do the work God has appointed for us to do, and to carry on with faith, with love and with charity.

Noah carried people and animals to safety in God’s good grace and time. The Blessed Virgin Mary, like an ark, carried Jesus for nine months and delivered him safely. And Jesus, through the church, carries us through the waters of baptism, through desert dry places, through enemy territory, and even through long, slow periods of intense waiting—but Christ carries us through this life and into the next.

In the name of the Father and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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Christ the (unusual) King

christ-the-kingA sermon for November 24, 2019, celebrated as The Last Sunday after Pentecost: Christ the King.  The scriptures are Jeremiah 23:1-6, Psalm 46, Colossians 1:11-20, and Luke 23:33-43

Listen to the sermon HERE

In the United States, paying attention to the Royal Family in Great Britain can be a little like watching a train wreck or an accident. We have mixed feelings about staring, but find it hard to look away. Just as Harry and Meghan begin to get points for trying to break the mold and do some good things, Prince Andrew comes along and confirms our worst suspicions about inherited privilege.

Royal language can be provocative. For some, it brings a knee-jerk reaction—organize the rebellion, reject all authority. But for others, thinking of royals, conjures up a kind of teary yearning for a realm of someone like King Arthur, or the realm of a Disney princess, full of romance and chivalry, religious sentiment, and niceness.

All the more problematic, then, when we read scripture and celebrate liturgies that speak of God as King, or that speak of Jesus as king.

A little like some reactions to current monarchies, some theologians and preachers rebel against this language. Instead of the “kingdom” of God, they might speak of the “kin-dom” of God, or the commonwealth of God. But to avoid calling Christ “King” is to miss a major point in today’s Gospel. It is to miss a major point in Christian theology.

The image of a king is important because Jesus does so much to deconstruct that image. He turns it inside-out. He re-defines it. As people bring to the idea of “king” their own images and desires, Jesus holds a mirror up so that we might inspect those images more closely, and try to see the one behind the mirror—both our true self, as well as Jesus the Son of God.

At the cross, the soldiers mock Jesus and make fun of him, calling him, “king.” “The king of the Jews,” they name him. “If you’re such a great king, then do something. Show off. Save yourself.” And Jesus is silent. But then one of the thieves who is also on a cross next to Jesus understand something of his kingship and asks for favor. “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” The thief can’t really have any idea what he’s asking, or what kind of a king Jesus is, or what kind of a kingdom his may be—but he sees something in Jesus and his way, in his love that forgives, and receives, and leads to the love of God. And so, the thief wants “in.” He asks for entrance, and Jesus gives it.
In this Gospel we see the kind of king Jesus is—that even from the cross, he extends his kingdom and invites everybody in.

The reign of Christ the King is like that—ever unfolding, ever extending, ever including each one of us.

It is a kingdom of reversals. As the Virgin Mary sings, “He has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts. He has put down the mighty from their thrones, and exalted those of low degree. He has filled the hungry with good things; and the rich He has sent empty away.” To live with Christ as King is to live with an awareness of this reversal.

His is a kingdom of outcasts. When we read the Gospels, it is a wild array of people who come to hear Jesus, who follow him, and who make him their Lord. Some are prostitutes, some are tax collectors, some widows, some soldiers; some are very rich, some are very poor, but they are unlikely to meet except for their meeting in the presence of Christ. To live with Christ as King is to live in continual welcome of the outcasts, of those who have nowhere else to go.

And finally, his is a kingdom of possibilities. To live with Christ as King is to live in expectation, to live in hope, and to live in faith. It is a kingdom of second chances, and third chances and fourth and fifth and sixth chances.

Even as we might wrestle with our perception of the kings and queens of our day, living in our world, on this Sunday, we can give thanks for Christ the King. We can give thanks he continues to reinterpret the meaning of power, of rule, of authority, as he continually empties himself of those things so that we might be full. And being full, we empty ourselves so that others may be lifted up.

May we rejoice in this kingdom of reversals. May we open our doors to a kingdom of outcasts. And may we open our hearts to a kingdom of possibilities.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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A Spiritual Survival Kit

Emergency KitA sermon for November 17, 2019, the Twenty-Third Sunday after Pentecost. The scriptures are Malachi 4:1-2a, Psalm 98, 2 Thessalonians 3:6-13, and Luke 21:5-19

Listen to the sermon HERE.

In today’s Gospel Jesus speaks about living in an age of anxiety. He talks about the difficulty of living in that place between obsessing on the future, and ignoring it. Jesus says that even there in Jerusalem, the centerpiece of Israel’s worship, the symbol of God’s presence among his people—the temple, Jesus says, will soon be no more. The day will come, he says “when not one stone will be left upon another; [and] all will be thrown down.” The disciples hear this and they become alarmed—whether they think Jesus is going to storm the temple and help bring it down, or whether some calamity is on its way—the disciples ask him, “Teacher, when will this be?” And, how will we know when it will be about to happen?

Sensing their anxiety, Jesus slows them down. He begins to warn them about those who will come and take advantage of their sense of the final days. Some will make the most out of a sense of impending calamity, and some will do what they can to exploit fear. Some will say, “the time is near,” Jesus cautions. Others will say “wars and insurrections are coming.” But again, Jesus says, “Do not be terrified,” because certain things will happen along the way. In classic language of the end times, language that might have been from Isaiah or Daniel or Enoch or John the Baptist, or John the Divine, Jesus says, “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom… famines, earthquakes, plagues…” And then Jesus seems to warn them that as his followers, the religious leaders are going to question them and perhaps punish them and perhaps even persecute them.

But in the face of all of this, Jesus counsels that they should remain calm. Don’t even plan beforehand what you might say. Trust in God and trust in Jesus. He says, “not a hair of your head will perish,” which is not quite true given that soon after, Stephen is persecuted, John is killed, and many, many others will die for their faith. But Jesus is talking about something beyond what may happen to the body in this world.

Scholars tells us that in the first century, with rumblings in the Roman Empire and potential uprisings in every corner, a sense of the apocalyptic, of the end of time, was in the air. But beyond being a history lesson or a window into the life of Jesus, what does this say to us? Most of us do not risk being persecuted for our faith. Much of our culture regards Christian faith as superstition. It’s an emotional or psychological crutch. It’s thought to be quaint; just a nice, old-fashioned cultural affectation.

For some in the church, perhaps that is an accurate characterization. Some may hold on to an almost pagan faith that if they’re good, they’ll be protected by God. But if something bad happens, God must be angry. But in this Gospel and others, Jesus encourages us to look at life head-on and also to hold on. Hold on to Christ, and his presence will save. Something about the presence of Jesus in our lives—this Jesus who was born, lived a life like ours, was crucified, and raised from the dead—this Jesus still lives through us and gives us the strength, the courage and the tenacity to live in with faith for final days—whatever shape that “finality” may take, whether (in the words of one preacher, Fred Craddock) “we go to Christ or Christ comes to us.”

At the end of today’s Gospel there is an important word. Jesus promises, “By your endurance you will gain your souls.” By enduring—that is, simply living out our faith—getting up in the morning, saying our prayers (when we remember), loving our families (if we live with them) and going through the activities of the day, with as much faith and trust in Jesus Christ as possible. This is our preparation. This is our practice. This is how we become prepared for whatever may come.

Though Jesus counsels we shouldn’t over-plan our response to the future, he also models the kind of life that can take on anything. As we live in tumultuous times, we should probably do more about a survival kit, an emergency plan. But I think we also need a spiritual emergency plan, based on practices that will sustain us.

If we are not connected with Christ, if we’re not grounded in God, then storms, crises, problems, all can overtake us. A spiritual emergency kit might include at least four things: 1) a prayer, 2) a practice, 3) a place, and 4) a person or two.

A Prayer is a good thing to have at hand. Whether you make the Lord’s Prayer your own, memorize a prayer from the Book of Common Prayer, or just come up with your own—a prayer can save the day. It gives you your breath back. It gives you a pause. It reframes and re-focuses. You might choose something traditional like the classic “Jesus Prayer” (Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.) Or, the Ave Maria from the Rosary. Or maybe just the simple, “I am here, you are here, thank you.” —it’s good to know a prayer so that whenever you need it, it’s right there with you, inside of you.

A spiritual emergency kit would also include a practice of some kind—a practice you can do without thinking about it, something calming and routine that puts you back in your own spiritual zone. It might be yoga, or meditation, or prayer using the Daily Office. It would be riding a bike, or walking for twenty minutes. Or, you could do like a friend of mine who simply gets a massage. No matter what crisis comes, she responds first by scheduling a massage. After that, she can worry, plan, recover, and deal with whatever problem has come alone.

A place that is holy and grounding can be a life-saver. When you feel like the world is spinning out of control, you simply go to your place and be still. A holy place might be this church or another. It might be a chapel at the cathedral, a garden, a special stretch of the city, or just a special chair. But it’s a place to return to, a place to center and hit a spiritual “re-set” button.

Finally, a spiritual emergency kit would include the phone number of a person, or a way of reaching a friend. That friend might be a religious person, or it might not be, but it should be someone who you can tell the truth to, someone who will listen but not judge, absorb what you’re saying and not give advice. Such a friend will help get you through the roughest of rough places.

In just a few minutes, during the Offertory, the choir will sing Beatus Vir by Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741). Though Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons” plays in bathrooms and lobbies throughout the year, and Vivaldi’s “Gloria” will no doubt sing us through Christmas, the composer Vivaldi is not much talked about. His father was a violinist, and he grew up learning to play instruments, but early on, because of some kind of asthma, couldn’t sustain enough breath to play a wind instrument. Vivaldi trained for the priesthood and was ordained, but had to be excused from celebrating Mass—again, because of his ill health. In the middle of conversation or teaching, he would gasp for breath and sometimes get dizzy. For almost 38 years, he taught and composed at the Devout Hospital of Mercy in Venice (Ospedale della Pietà ). Though he was wildly successful for some years, with patronage from royalty and the Church, when younger composers came along, Vivaldi fell out of favor. He never married, and died in poverty. It was only later, that his music was dusted off and made popular again.

But through his asthma, through the long years of working with children in an orphanage, through the rough times with not attention and no income, Vivaldi endured. His spiritual survival kit certainly included music, but it also contained a steady faith in the God who takes us through life, through death, and into eternal life.

May we gather the tools we need to endure in faith. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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Staying Centered

labyrinth2A sermon for the Twenty-Second Sunday after Pentecost, November 10, 2019. The scriptures are Job 19:23-27a, Psalm 17:1-9, 2 Thessalonians 2:1-5, 13-17, and Luke 20:27-38

Listen to the sermon HERE.

Some of you are familiar with the practice of Centering Prayer. In past, we’ve had a small group of people who would meet for Centering Prayer, and a number of us continue that kind of prayer or a similar kind alone. In Centering Prayer, one returns to a word or image. Distractions come in prayer—always, but after noticing the distraction, one returns to the word.

It’s good to have some kind of practice to go to when we’re thrown off center. A few years ago, I used a washing machine that would occasionally get off-center, out of kilter. It would just stop. \ That happens with machines, but it can also happen in life. Something throws us off, and we freeze, not quite knowing how to re-set.

In the Gospel we just heard, a group of religious leaders are trying to do their best to throw Jesus off center, to bog things down, and throw him off his mission. Jesus has come into Jerusalem. The procession we recall on Palm Sunday has already happened. Jesus has overturned the moneychangers’ tables in the Temple and he has gotten some attention.

The Sadducees were a powerful group in Jerusalem, and in today’s reading, Jesus comes up against them. Their beliefs were based on the first five books of scripture only, and they believe that these had been authored by Moses. If it wasn’t contained in those books, then there was no reason to believe it.

But Jesus talks about things not contained in the books of Moses. And Jesus talks about eternal life. But the Sadducees don’t believe in eternal life, not for a minute. So when they ask Jesus a question about it, he suspects that they’re trying to trick him.

Both Jesus and the Sadducees know the longstanding Jewish practice that if a man dies and he has no children to continue his family, his brother should marry the widow to provide for the brother’s family to come. And so, the Sadducees ask Jesus a hypothetical: what if each of the seven brothers dies, but at each point along the way, a remaining brother marries the widow. At the resurrection, whose wife will she be? Jesus sees the attempt to throw him off center but refuses to let it happen. He tells them that if they were really so concerned about the resurrection and believed in it, then they would be more concerned about getting their own lives in order, not obsessing about marriage. Marriage is for those of “this age,” Jesus says—those who need to provide for a family or provide for the wellbeing of others.

The typical marriage in First Century Palestine, like much of the first millennium, was more about property and possessions. It was about taking care of folks and making sure life could continue. But whenever Jesus talks about marriage, he talks about it as something that always points beyond itself. Marriage doesn’t exists as an end in itself. It doesn’t exist simply for the two partners, or even the nuclear family. Marriage is a preparation for something to come, a training ground for love, a hint of something even more incredible to follow, something that will be even better than the closes of human relationships, at the resurrection.

In talking with the Sadducees, Jesus is not thrown off by talking about marriage or the treatment of widows or even of the justification of the Sadducees as a religious group.
Instead, Jesus keeps his focus. And he keeps moving toward the cross.

He tries to wake up this crowd when he says, “Ours is not a God of the dead, but of the living, for to God all of them are alive.” Anything that is not a part of that life—the life of God—is less than it can be, and anything that tries to turn us away from that life is a distraction.

Last weekend, we observed All Saints’ and All Souls’. We gave thanks for the famous saints and their example to us, and we also gave special thanks for those saints (those ordinary believers) who we have known and loved, and who have died. Though we feel death—its pain, its shock, its disruption, we also know that death can throw us off center. Sometimes for weeks—or months, or years. But faith in Jesus who died on the cross, who battled down death in the grave, and who rose again—faith in Jesus and his resurrection centers us again.

The other readings for today, in their own way, also attest to this power of God to dispel distractions and to bring us gently back to center again. In the Old Testament reading we see Job, who even in the very midst of death—the death of his family, the death of his career, his health, even his future (it seems)—he clings to the life of God. Job refuses to be done in by the distractions around him, especially when his friends try to create complicated theological justifications for what he is experiencing. Instead, Job goes to what he knows deep down in his heart. He cries out for life: “I know that my Redeemer lives, and at last he will stand upon the earth.”

Likewise, to the people at Thessalonica, Paul says, “the Lord is faithful. He will strengthen you and guard you from the evil one.” These are appropriate words as we approach Veterans Day tomorrow, when our country remembers those who have often strengthened and guarded us.

We still get thrown off center. We may not have Sadducees coming up to us and trying to trick us with questions about the resurrection, but we do have plenty of people who will try to trick us with religious arguments, with scripture taken out of context, with confused theology, with simplistic thinking.

Whether it is the campaigns political or the campaigns theological that attempt to sidetrack us; whether it is the attack from the right or from the left, from the friend or from the stranger; or just our bodies growing old and rebelling against us—there are always things and people who can make us feel like those children’s toys that lean this way and that, and almost fall down.

The cross of Jesus Christ calls us to re-center.

We center on the cross in prayer. Prayer helps. Meditation lessens the distractions; contemplation keeps us clear. In the midst of whatever comes—sickness, through any challenge, through any test—even through death into eternal life. The cross of Christ is a reminder of where we’re headed, and that there is life and resurrection on the other side.

We also center on the cross in the Eucharist. At the altar, we meet and receive Christ crucified. We meet and receive Christ broken, transformed, and shared for us, calling us back to the center of what matters most.

Our worship itself can center us. Whether it’s the prayers of morning or evening prayer, the prayers we may say alone or with our family, or the weekly return to this community of prayer. We spin and run and tilt all week long, but when we return, there’s a calm and a centering that can happen in this place, with God’s people.

Whether we picture the cross in our prayers, hold onto it, or reach for it, may the cross of Jesus Christ lift us in this life, and life us again into life eternal.

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With All the Saints

Fra_Angelico, Forerunners for Christ from the Fiesole Altarpiece, c. 1423-24
A sermon for November 3, 2019, celebrated as All Saints’ Sunday. The scripture readings are Daniel 7:1-3,15-18, Psalm 149, Ephesians 1:11-23, and Luke 6:20-31

Listen to the sermon HERE.

Not too long ago, I met someone at a gathering who goes to a Baptist Church. Her church wanted to do something for the children around Halloween, but a number of their church members were uncomfortable with the idea of encouraging kids to dress up as devils or vampires… or perhaps even worse as popstars a little too sexy for their age. And so, my friend asked about the tradition of All Saints’ Day. If her church were to encourage children to dress as their favorite saint, where should they look for the official listing of saints?

I hesitated. Should I point her to the US Conference of Catholic Bishops site, for the official listing of Roman Catholic saints? (Even there, there’s a problem, since the official saints vary from country to country.) Should I send her the Book of Common Prayer listing of saints, or the latest official listing called, “Holy Women, Holy Men”? Or, does she just want the Biblical saints, or the famous saints from over time? [I ended up suggested a book of general saints that includes lots of pictures, thinking maybe the kids could look at a picture and choose something that attracted their eye, and then hear about the particular saint and dress like them.]

Our own tradition is mixed regarding saints. We name churches St. Mary’s, St. Botolph’s, St. James’, or even All Saints’—but then, sometimes we’re not really sure what we should do with these saints. Do we put them in stained-glass windows and keep them two-dimensional? Do we think of the saints as lucky charms, good for the naming of a child or the excuse of dessert on a saint’s day? Or are the saints simply a religious affectation, the romantic indulgence of an Anglophile, or the superstition of Catholic grandmothers?

The idea of communicating with the saints—especially our familiar ones—has gained new popularity with the 2017 movie, “Coco,” which has to do with the Mexican Day of the Dead celebration. In parts of Mexico (and increasingly, in much of Mexico and parts of the United States) home altars are made that include photographs of loved ones who have died, some of their favorite foods or drinks, and marigold flowers, which (from Aztec times onward) have helped guide the souls of the ancestors to return.

While the Mexican Día de Muertos, or Day of the Dead, emphases the close communion of the saints around the 2nd of November, the Christian hope in eternal life assures us that we are close to those who have died every day—not just around the Celebration of All Saints’ and All Souls’.

We can look to the New Testament for some help, as we notice that writers use the word “saint” somewhat loosely. In many places all the faithful are referred to as saints. Paul addresses his Letter to the Romans, “To all God’s beloved in Rome, who are called to be saints.” In helping the Corinthian church sort out its squabbles, Paul suggests that the aggrieved parties not go to secular courts, but go “before the saints,” the local gathering of Christians. In Revelation, John shows us various pictures of the saints in light, ordinary believers—some who have died for their faith, others who have died natural deaths—but ordinary believers made extraordinary by the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

One thing for sure is that saints are marked people. They are marked by God with the word, Sanctus, or Holy. Some teach and lead, moving us closer to God. Some antagonize and agitate, all for the glory of God. Some offer mercy and show justice for the glory of God. And some really do exude a kind of holiness. They live transparent lives through which one sees the love of Christ. Saints are marked people.

But we too are marked. We are sealed by the Holy Spirit at baptism and marked as Christ’s own forever. We carry the mark of holiness and while the best of us might reveal a bit of the holy here and there, for the most part Sanctus is a name and a way that we are growing into.

In Revelation, John has a vision of what heaven must look like when people have fully grown into their sainthood.

. . . [A] great multitude which no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and tongues, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits upon the throne, and to the Lamb!”
Revelation shows us the future but it also helps us understand the past. Those everyday saints who struggled to be faithful in this world, who prayed to God and prayed for each other have been raised to new life into heaven. There they do what they did in this life—they show forth God’s love, they sing God’s praises, and they pray. They pray for one another and they pray for us.

I know that when various of my ancestors were alive, they prayed for me. I know that my Sunday school teachers prayed for me. I often feel the prayers of a certain former senior warden. Friends and perhaps those I didn’t even know prayed for me.

Though they have died, faith tells me that they have been raised to new life in Christ. They are with God and they are changed, but they are still praying for me and for all the world to be consumed in God’s love. Like love itself, love that “bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things,” prayer, too, never ends. And so the saints, the great ones, the ordinary ones, and those who are still improving—they pray for us.
That the saints surround us and help us and pray for us, gives us what we need to live into those various blessings we hear today in the words of Jesus. The Sermon on the Mount can sound like an impossible invitation to holiness.

But we have holy help. We have help in those who have gone before us who wrestled with these words of Jesus. Some might have failed miserably in those qualities Jesus talks about. But others struggled, prayed, and gradually got better. Others became so closely identified with the blessings, that they themselves became blessings in the lives of others.
The saints remind us to stay on track, and they help to show us the way.

As the great children’s hymn reminds us

They lived not only in ages past;
there are hundreds of thousands still.
The world is bright with the joyous saints
who love to do Jesus’ will.

You can meet them in school, or in lanes, or at sea,
in church, or in trains or in shops, or at tea,
for the saints of God are just folk like me,
and I mean to be one too.

May the saints inspire us. When we are tired, may they strengthen us. When we are lazy, may they shame us. When we are alone, may they surround us. And may they fill our lives with increasing love until the day that we join them before God in everlasting praise.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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No Comparison

pharisee and tax collectorA sermon for October 27, 2019, the Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost. The scripture readings are Sirach 35:12-17, Psalm 84:1-6, 2 Timothy 4:6-8,16-18, and Luke 18:9-14

Listen to the sermon HERE.

A couple of Saturdays ago, several of us from Holy Trinity joined others from the Diocese at a Global Missions Fair in Poughkeepsie. It was held at Christ Church, Poughkeepsie, a church I had never seen before. Christ Church goes way back, having been founded in the 1760s, it received a royal charter from the King George III in October 1773. The current building (the parish’s third) was built in 1888, and is a wonderful gothic mixture of wood, glass, color, and texture. I loved the red walls of the inside of the main church and I kind of envied the way they had built a big kitchen on the side of their social hall, separated by a glass and wood partition. As I spent the day in their buildings, I found myself comparing and contrasting with Holy Trinity. Their location is a bit suburban; we’re in the middle of a busy city. They had great stained glass; we have magnificent stained glass. Our space is grand, but their space if more versatile. On and on, the comparisons went, until I began to realize that I was wasting a whole lot of energy playing this mental and sometimes verbal game of “notice what’s similar or different in this picture.” I began to realize that I was missing some of what was right in front of me.

Perhaps the content of the talks and presentations, the people around, me, and even my experience of the church itself might better be enjoyed, might better be understood, by my simply receiving the place as it is and not trying to fit it into my view of the world based on where I come from and what I perceive as the norm. As I noticed myself doing this with a church, I thought about how often I do it with people. This person dresses differently. That person eats different food. This person travels around the world like they have money to burn; that person seems not to have much extra. Sometimes consciously, but often unconsciously, I compare myself to other people—sometimes feeling a bit superior, but often feeling for some reason or another inferior.

It was the diplomat and economist, Dag Hammarskjöld, who wrote, “To be humble is not to make comparisons.” He wrote,

Humility is just as much the opposite of self-abasement as it is of self-exaltation. To be humble is not to make comparisons. Secure in its reality, the self is neither better nor worse, bigger nor smaller, than anything else in the universe.  (Markings).

While I certainly don’t claim humility, I do think Hammarskjold’s words speak to my own experience (when I go into other churches as well as when I encounter other people). Hammarskjold’s words also speak to the point of today’s Gospel.

If we were to take Hammarskjold’s advice, I think we would be very careful in our reading and hearing of the parable in today’s Gospel from Luke. Jesus is not calling us to compare ourselves with either the Pharisee or the tax-collector. Instead, he wants us to try to move beyond comparisons, and begin to depend upon the grace of God.
Perhaps the Pharisee seems familiar from what we’ve heard in church before. Since Sunday school—even in popular culture—the Pharisee is almost always typecast as the “bad guy.” It’s hard to imagine a good Pharisee, one who is kind or generous. It’s perhaps hard to imagine a female Pharisee. But the fact is that the majority of the Pharisees were probably good folks—hardworking, law-abiding, giving, praying, “doing” believers who tried as best they might to follow the ways of the God of Israel.

The Pharisee in today’s Gospel says as much in his prayer. I don’t think his prayer is as boastful as it is factual. He’s simply repeating what he’s done. He’s undertaking a kind of spiritual examen, reviewing his day, reviewing his week. Where did God show up? Where did God not show up? He has fasted twice a week, he has tithed (giving at least a tenth of all he has). He’s an upstanding member of the community.

In our day, the Pharisee would most likely be in church on Sunday morning, serve on community boards, attend PTSA meetings, maybe even coach soccer, and probably volunteer for a local charity or run in a money-raising marathon. If you can picture respectability, then you can picture a Pharisee. And it’s wrong for us to assume that this respectability is just a veneer. The Pharisee feels strongly about his beliefs, takes his commitments seriously, and lives out his values.

The tax collector, on the other hand, is a traitor. Palestine at this point is under Roman occupation. And so, the tax collector is a Jew who is collecting money from his own people to give to the Roman state. Tax collectors in the popular imagination were no good. They were thought to be liars and cheats, greedy and only interested in themselves.
In our Gospel, the Pharisee thanks God for the gifts God has given him. But the tax collector—strange even that he might have wandered into the temple—the tax collector asks for nothing but the mercy of God. There is no indication that the tax collector has quit his dirty-work. He hasn’t suddenly decided to take a new job or follow a different course. And it’s not even clear that the tax collector expects to be heard by God, much less answered by God.

The issue here is not that Pharisees are bad and tax collectors are good. It’s not about comparing the good, honest, upstanding folk who might be in church on Sunday with the folks who partied so hard last night that they’re still in bed this morning. The point of the Gospel come out in the prayers of the two characters.

The prayer offered by the Pharisee was very close to a common prayer offered by any faithful Jew in the temple, with one exception. There’s one little word that pops out, translated in the English as the word, “like.” The Pharisee gives thanks to God that he is not “like” other people, especially the tax collector. For the Pharisee, gratitude has crossed over into a sense of elitism—something that happens easily whenever we get into “we/them language.” The Pharisee’s prayer is false prayer as he compares himself with the tax collector. And had the tax collector in some way compared himself with the Pharisee, whether favorably or unfavorably, it would have been just as false. Neither person is any more deserving of God’s grace and mercy than the other.

Effective prayer reminds us of our complete dependence upon God. Faithful prayer is not a listing of what we’ve done right, or even what we’ve done wrong. The tax collector never loses sight of that. He knows that he really has nothing going for him but the grace of God, and so it’s for this reason that Jesus says the tax collector left the temple “justified,” or “in line with God.”

Those words of Hammarskjöld come back to me: “to be humble is not to make comparisons.”

And I think the same dynamic plays itself out in our relationship with God and with other people. Though we are created in community and God loves us as God’s children, each of us is unique. Each is incomparable. Each lives and dies by the breath of God.
As Paul writes, each of us is “rescued from the lion’s mouth. The Lord will rescue [us] from every evil attack and save [us] for the heavenly kingdom.”

May we resist the temptation of making comparisons. May we rest in the grace, mercy, and love of God that sustains us and keeps us alive.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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Perseverance

PersistenceA sermon for the Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost, October 20, 2019.  The scripture readings are Genesis 32:22-31, Psalm 121, 2 Timothy 3:14-4:5, and Luke 18:1-8

Listen to the sermon HERE.

The Collect of the Day prays that we might “persevere with steadfast faith.”

Many of us know the meaning of that first word, “persevere.” Some have persevered through hard financial times, through bad health, or through long programs of study. Others have persevered with difficult children or spouses, with situations in which your whole life prays for change.

But what does it look like to do what our prayer suggests and persevere with steadfast faith? How do we look for God when we’re just about ready to give up?

In the reading from Genesis, we see Jacob as he is just about ready to give up. He’s “greatly afraid and distressed,” according to scripture—but that probably doesn’t even begin to describe it. He is scared because he is about to meet his brother Esau, who he has cheated twice before. In fact, Jacob had even tricked out of their father’s blessing. And so, now he’s heard that Esau has 400 men with him, and there is to be a confrontation. Jacob gets ready and tries to prepare for what’s ahead. He divides his family and possessions in case of an attack from his brother. But then, the night before the meeting, he sends everyone away and spends time alone. But Jacob is left alone with his worries, alone with his fears, and alone with his God. In that loneliness, there is a wrestling match. A mysterious figure appears and struggles with Jacob, but Jacob refuses to give in. He persists. He perseveres. In the struggle, Jacob is wounded, but he continues to fight. He presses on and eventually asks the stranger to bless him. The stranger, who is actually an angel of the Lord, changes Jacob’s name. Jacob becomes Israel, a name that includes the power of this struggle, and the stranger then leaves Jacob. He blesses Jacob, but also throws his hip out of joint, to give him something to remember the occasion.

Not only is this a great story, but it’s also an important story for the church. It’s important because it frames our struggles, and urges us on. It suggests that when we are struggling to persevere, says something about our own struggles with faith, even with God. The answer to our questions doesn’t always come easily or in the light. Sometimes we bare the wounds of the struggle for some time afterward. But we can also come to know God through the struggle. It can even feel like God is giving us a new name, a name that perhaps leaves us wounded, but in another sense, we are stronger and more driven and more directed. After all, some of the most dramatic paintings of Jesus show him resurrected in glory, but with wounds still visible.

In the Gospel there’s another kind of struggle. We don’t know the lady’s name—but perhaps we know someone like her. Maybe we know someone who perseveres and refuses to give up, who demands what’s right and refuses to settle. This judge, we’re told, fears neither God nor any man or woman. The judge is filled with himself probably, and looks no further.

And so, this woman brings her complaint to the judge day after day. The judge doesn’t really care about the woman’s case and ignores her for a while. But finally he gives up and says, “because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.” The verb that the judge uses in describing the tenacity of the woman is a verb used with boxing. It’s the same word that Paul uses in First Corinthians when he says that all of his preaching and teaching is not just a kind “boxing in the air” or aimless pommeling.”

Likewise, this woman knows her target and she’s ready to hit. Whether the judge is worried about getting a black eye from the woman, or whether he’s just worried about getting a tarnished reputation—he is worried enough that he give her what she wants. It is by her perseverance that she wins her case.

Jesus does not mean to compare the uncaring judge with God. What he’s doing instead is making an argument popular in rabbinic teaching in which he argues from the smaller thing to the greater. If this judge, who is unjust and respects no authority outside himself, hears the plea of this persistent woman, HOW MUCH MORE, Jesus suggests, does a loving, caring God hear those who are persistent in prayer.

Just as Jesus was human and divine, it makes sense that in our own spirituality—in our own prayer life (whether it is full or whether it is underdeveloped), that in our own prayer life we might reflect both the human and, with God’s grace, the divine.
We pray out of our very human hearts when we ask for what we want and need, when we persist, when we argue with God, when we struggle, when we nag, even when we whine. In the Garden of Gethsemane Jesus, after all, prays, “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me.”

But there’s also the other part of our spirit that is called to imitate Christ and to struggle with the angel of the Lord as we try to discern what God’s will for us might be, and how to pray that prayer. Jesus concluded that prayer in the garden, “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me; yet, not my will but yours be done.” And one version of Luke’s Gospel continues, “Then an angel from heaven appeared to him and gave him strength.” Strength sometimes comes in that moment of giving up and over to God’s will, even when that will is veiled.

In today’s Gospel Jesus tells this parable to remind the disciples that they should “pray always and not lose heart.” Both the story of Jacob wrestling with the angel and the story of the woman who perseveres with the judge can make the spiritual life sound lonely, as though it is an individual path. But remember that we hear and reflect on these stories together. The story of Jacob was handed down in community, just like we hear it today. The story of the “woman before the judge” Jesus told to the disciples, and Luke tells it to the early church, and we hear it as a parish family today. All of this is to say that while we may struggle or persevere in particular ways as individuals, we are never left alone. Like Jacob, even on the darkest of nights, the entire family of faith is just over the hill.

May we be strong in our faith, and may God be merciful even as we are strengthened, that we truly may “persevere with steadfast faith in the confession of Jesus Christ our Savior.”

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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The Blessing Right Here

Oct 13 2019 croppedA sermon for the Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost, October 13, 2019, which included the Blessing of a Lifelong Covenant.  The scriptures are 2 Kings 5:1-3, 7-15c, Psalm 111, 2 Timothy 2:8-15, and Luke 17:11-19

Listen to the sermon HERE.

There’s an old story about a man who goes rents a summer house in a beautiful valley. From the first day of his time there, he notices one house all the way across the valley, so far that he can barely make it out. But in the late afternoon, he can see it because it has golden windows. The house he’s in is not so bad. It’s small and somewhat simple, sure, but it’s nice. And yet, he looks across, and there’s a house so that much be so special, so amazing. He begins to imagine what IT must be like—its rooms, the materials that make it up, it probably has a HUGE kitchen. And so, and after weeks, the man decides to try to hike across the valley and visit this golden-windowed house. He takes provisions, knowing that it will take him a few days to hike the journey. Off he goes, all the time, noticing that there’s a growing excitement inside him—who would live in a house with golden windows? Is it someone famous? Are they going to be friends? Is this the beginning of a new, amazing adventure? Over the several nights that he’s camping and hiking, he can barely sleep for the curiosity of wondering what he’s find.

Finally, he close. He sees a trail and eventually a driveway. He makes his way up to what seems like a house in the right spot, but not THE house. This must be the groundskeeper’s house, or some out building, but surely the person here will have information on the golden-windowed house. And so he knocks on the door. A older woman opens the door, and he explains that he’s looking for the house with the golden windows. “Is it close by?” he asks. The women looks at him with a surprised look and says, “Why, no. Actually, the house with the golden windows is way over there, across the valley, but it’s so far away that you can only really see it in the morning.” She points in the direction from which the man has come, and says, “There’s the house with the golden windows.”

How often do we miss the blessing that is right in front of us, the common, wonderful, gift-of-God right where we are?

In the first scripture reading, Naaman, the tough, smart military commander has a problem: he has leprosy. A young girl mentions to Naaman’s wife that there’s a great prophet in Israel who can heal the commander. He should go and see him, and so Naaman makes the trip to see Elisha. Elisha sends a messenger out to Naaman with simple instructions: “Go, wash in the Jordan seven times, and your flesh shall be restored and you shall be clean.” Naaman is furious. Can’t Elisha at least pray over him, or give him some special medicine, or do SOMETHING extraordinary? They’ve got better rivers at home—why should he bother with the River Jordan? Naaman turns in a huff, but his servants point out to him, “Sir, if the prophet had asked you to do something complicated, you would have done it, right? But how much easier simply to do the thing in front of you?” Naaman washes in the river, and is made clean.

The source of healing was there, all along. All Naaman had to do (and it’s a lot for most of us) was to put himself second, try on a little humility, take advice from someone else, and receive the good that was right there in front of him.

In the Gospel, ten lepers are healed and told by Jesus to go and show themselves to the priest for a final blessing. Nine of them just keep on going. They move on, perhaps looking for the next thing to fill them with happiness, or satisfaction, or safety. But the one healed leper—the Samaritan (the foreigner, the outsider, the one who was made fun of and talked about)—came back to Jesus to thank him. He understood that Jesus was the connected to the source of all healing and that he didn’t need to look any further for truth, for peace, or for love.

In both our primary scripture readings, we hear about people who are healed, but a big part of their healing has to do with what is right in front of them. Naaman in the first story and the leper in the second realize that they already live in a house with golden windows. They have all they need right where they are.

Today we celebrate and bless the love of Margie and Patsy. They have found in each other healing, wholeness, peace, and love—all centered and rooted in a life with Christ. Like golden windows, their affection radiates outward. Like cool waters that heal and renew, the current of their relationship offers safety and welcome to others.

As we celebrate the courage and faith of Patsy and Margie, may God help us to see the blessing in our midst, to claim that blessing, hold onto it for dear life, and for the love of God, protect it at all costs.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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Following Francis in Humility and Peace

st_francis_meets_the_wolf

A sermon for October 6, 2019, celebrated as St. Francis Sunday at The Church of the Holy Trinity.  The scriptures are Habakkuk 1:1-4, 2:1-4, Psalm 37:1-10, 2 Timothy 1:1-14, and Luke 17:5-10

Listen to the sermon HERE.

Today’s Gospel can sound rough on the ears. Jesus speaks casually about “slaves,” who were a given segment of his culture. It can be disturbing for us to hear Jesus this way, and not call out aspects of culture that today we find abhorrent. But scriptures like these do remind us of the humanity of Jesus along with his divinity. As a human, Jesus lived and moved in his own time, taking on the mindset, and even some of the un-examined assumptions of his culture, such as slavery.

The point of the Gospel today is, of course, not about slavery, but about humility. It begins as the disciples ask Jesus to increase their faith. Jesus then seems to suggest that their faith will be increased if they learn the way of humility. “Don’t go into something, looking for an engraved thank you note.” “Don’t look for special notice for doing what is simply expected.” Jesus is saying, “Try to be right-sized. Remember your place in creation.”

Today, creation and our place in it are themes that run through our worship. We celebrate St. Francis of Assisi today because it’s the closest Sunday to his feast day, October 4. Francis loved animals, but he even loved the fiercest, most dangerous, most unpredictable: Francis even loved humans.

There’s a story about Francis that has to do with this love of animals AND his love of humans.

As St. Francis and his band of brothers were preaching through the Umbrian countryside of what would become Italy, there was a report that an evil wolf was terrorizing the town of Gubbio. The wolf was fierce like no one had ever seen: it killed sheep and shepherd, alike. The mayor of the town sent for Francis, having heard that Francis was a kind of “animal whisperer.” He had a way with them, so maybe he could do something.
The people prayed. Francis’s brothers prayed. And Francis walked into the forest to look for the wolf. Murray Bodo tells the rest of the story:

Francis saw the wolf, who was frothing at the mouth and growling. The crowd stood motionless and silent. Francis stared at the wolf. Anger flashed in the wolf’s eyes and he was working his jaws, slobbering onto the ground. Francis dared not move, but he said in a simple, low, quiet voice, “Brother Wolf.” The wolf quieted down in an apparent response. “Brother Wolf,” Francis continued, “in the name of Jesus, our brother, I have come for you. We need you in the city. These people here have come with me to ask you, great ferocious one, to be the guardian and protector of Gubbio. In return we offer you respect and shelter for as long as you live. In pledge of this I offer you my hand.”

Francis stretched out his hand. The wolf seemed calm, but remained immobile, scanning the crowd. Then slowly he walked to Francis and lifted his paw into his warm, steady hand. The two remained in that position for a long time and what they said to one another Francis never told a living soul. (Murray Bodo, Francis: the Journey and the Dream (Cincinnati: St. Anthony’s Messenger Press, 1988), 53.

The story of Francis taming a wolf spread, and people still tell the story. But some have suggested that the story has another meaning.

You see, in 1219, in the middle of the Fifth Crusade, Francis wanted to go and meet the Sultan of Egypt, a Muslim—at first, with the idea of telling him about Jesus Christ and converting him Walking right through the battlefield, Francis went and was received by Malik al-Kamil. The sultan seems to have regarded Francis as a harmless holy man or a kind of Christian Sufi. After sharing conversation, and perhaps a meal, Francis left. Francis went straight to Cardinal Pelagius, the Christian commander in the crusades, and pleaded with him for peace, to stop fighting, to lay down arms.

Francis also told his Franciscan brothers (who were preaching the Gospel life in all directions) that when they went to a Muslim place, they first should preach Jesus Christ, but if the Muslims are not interested in converting, then the Christians should live among them in peace.

Some have suggested that this story of Francis and the “wolf” is really a re-telling of Francis going to meet the Sultan and attempting to broker some kind of peace. But such a peace would have been bad for the business of the crusades, counter to the intentions of Rome at the time, and so (some believe) the real story of Francis’ mission of peace went underground in the form of a fairy tale about a wolf-taming.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus encourages us to remember our place in creation, to be right-sized, and to follow the way of humility into greater faith. Francis shows us what following Christ in the way of humility looks like: not taking others’ word for who is an enemy, befriending creation (whether it’s a reportedly deadly wolf, or a rumored murderous Muslim), and by doing what he can not only to work for peace, but to embody peace, looking for God’s blessing in every living creature.

Who in our world are we led to believe is a big, bad wolf? Are there ways we can move toward a perceived enemy in the spirit of peace? Are there modern “crusades” that try to get us all swept up in their fury but are quick to label the stranger or foreigner as the enemy (when sometimes the real enemy is closer to home)? What brings you deep peace, so that you can begin to be a person of peace for others?

Especially in these early October days when the Church honors and remembers St. Francis, may we certainly notice the animals around us and give thanks. May we befriend them and share peace with them. But may we also work harder to notice the people around us, giving thanks, doing our part to be people of peace.

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