Thursday, September 27, 2012

St. Francis and a Family Reunion of Cosmic Proportions

Francis and the Wolf at Gubbio
Detail from the Life of Francis Windows (photo: Ron Ross)

October 4 is the Church’s official day for commemorating St. Francis of Assisi.  At All Souls we will honor Francis with Evening Prayer and the Blessing of Animals on Saturday, October 6.  Parishioners, neighbors, and friends of several species will gather in the front garden of the church at 3 p.m.   On Sunday, October 7, some of our music and prayers in Mass will also reflect a Franciscan spirit.

Especially in the “Canticle of the Creatures,” Francis personalizes creation.  He sings of Brother Sun, Sister Moon, Brothers Wind and Air, and Sister Water.  Fire is his brother, the earth his mother, and even death itself is a sister who will one day embrace him with love and welcome. At first glance, such words can seem sweet and romantic.

But Franciscan scholar Leonardo Boff points out that Francis is anything but a romantic.  Contemporary romanticism involves projecting feelings onto and into creation, to imagine the created order being the way we want or desire it to be.  Boff argues that Francis does something very different.  Francis listens for the message that arises out of nature itself.  Francis lives out his Canticle in such a way as to make it less about himself than about being brother and sister with all created things and their Maker.  This includes all people, as well:  rich and poor, local and foreign, Christians and non-Christians.        

Before Francis, the creation was understood in hierarchical terms, especially by the Church.  God was on top, then came humanity as “lord of creation,” establishing a vertical arrangement of power and authority.  Francis, according to Boff, invites us into a horizontal dimension: “If all are children of God, all are brothers and sisters to one another.  All live in the same Great House of the Father.  All acquire a deep intimacy with all things” (Francis of Assisi: A Model for Human Liberation, 33). 

Remembering St. Francis, reflecting on his life, and listening to his challenging words invites us to regard all creation as our family.  For that reason, St. Francis Day is a good time for a family reunion of a cosmic order. 

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Keeping Focus

A sermon for the Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost, September 23, 2012.  The lectionary readings are Wisdom of Solomon 1:16-2:1, 12-22, Psalm 54 , James 3:13-4:3, 7-8a, and Mark 9:30-37.

I have a friend who was a pretty decent gold player.  Until he wasn’t any longer.  For some unexplained reason, he just wasn’t hitting the ball quite right.  He wondered if he had pulled something in his shoulder.  He wondered if he was just getting older.  He tried every little thing he knew and eventually consulted a pro golfer for lessons—maybe he could do something with my friend’s swing. 

The professional worked with him for a few sessions, and then one day, just as my friend was saying goodbye to the golf pro, he took off his glasses and put on his sunglasses. The pro thought of something.  “Are those, by any chance new glasses?” he asked.  “Well yes, they are, but they’re just like my old ones.” The pro knew enough to ask more.  “Just like? Or slightly different.”  We’ll, they’re slightly different, there’s a bifocal lens inside, and there may have been some particular adjustment.  The pro was intrigued.  “Do you still have your old glasses?  If so, bring them next time and let’s see how you hit the ball with them.”  Well, my friend couldn’t wait until next time.  He went straight home and returned to the driving range, put some balls on the ground, and – one, two, three, four, five—each swing was perfect.  There had been something about his new glasses that caused his eye to be just off the ball.  It changed the angle of his neck, and he overcompensated with his swing.  Once he was able to focus properly, the ball went straight as an arrow. 

Some things in life are all about the “focus.”  We’ve seen that the past week with politicians, as they’ve been lured off point, away from the subject, and have made huge blunders.  Whether it’s politicians or people behind the wheel of a car, or almost any other situation we can think of-- when one gets distracted, mistakes can be made, obvious things overlooked, and consequences ensue.

In the Gospel this morning, Jesus tries to tell the disciples something vitally important, but the disciples can’t focus.  They’re looking and listening elsewhere.  They are all traveling and Jesus lays it all out to them as he says, “The Son of man will be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him; and three days after he is killed, he will rise again.” But the disciples aren’t really listening. They are distracted. They are thinking about, among other things, their own futures. They’re anticipating Jesus coming into power, maybe Jesus going into Jerusalem and taking over, and so the disciples are busy wondering about which of them will be the greatest. Which of them will have the responsible job? Which of them will be noticed, will be thanked, will be rewarded?

Jesus re-focuses his friends with simple words. The drama of the past, the endless possibilities of the future all crumble as Jesus says, probably very quietly: “To be first, one must be the last of all. To be first, one must be the servant of all.”

And then Jesus takes a little child—probably much like any other child—helpless, vulnerable, and needy. And he says “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me; and whoever welcomes me, welcomes not [only] me but [also] the one who sent me.”

Earlier this morning we began to see how if we only view St. Francis as a sweet, slightly demented guy who preaches to birds, we miss the point of who he was and what he was about.  It’s the same way with the way that Jesus places a child in the middle of the discussion to make a point.  Children in Jesus’ day were not viewed as sweet and innocent and cute. They had no rights. They were not viewed as citizens. Some were viewed as useful, if they were able to help with work, but beyond that, they were mostly to be ignored until they grew up and could help with the work.

As Frederick Buechner puts it: “Jesus is saying that people who get into heaven are people who, like children, live with their hands open more than with their fists clenched. They are people who, like children, are so relatively unburdened by preconceptions that if somebody says there’s a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, they are perfectly willing to go take a look for themselves. Children can often tell the difference between a phony and the real thing. It is we who are distracted by appearances.”

“Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me; and whoever welcomes me, welcomes not [only] me but [also] the one who sent me.” Somehow we find Christ in the midst of those who can give us nothing in return.

The first reading this morning also has something to say about distractions. From the Wisdom of Solomon, there is talk about the ungodly—but when you think about them, they’re really just people who are suffering from a major case of distraction. Not only do they enjoy the good gifts of God, they become distracted by them and begin to base their lives upon it. The ungodly become so distracted by their inflated sense of power and importance that they begin to grasp for more, and they oppress those who have less.

Greatness is a distraction. Importance is a distraction. The past can be a distraction. Dwelling too much in the future, can be a distraction.

If you notice in scripture, so often, as much as anything else, Jesus calls from distraction. He calls us to attention. He calls us to absolute attention. (Simone Weil would remind us that this, “absolute attention” is prayer.) Jesus calls into the present, the concrete, the real—the salty sea water underneath, the fresh, clean water from a well, the mud of the earth that becomes healing balm, the freshly caught fish – lunch for 5,000 or so. The bread, the wine, the water, the blood.

There’s a wonderful story about losing focus that comes from the Zen tradition.  It’s a story from the well-known collection, Zen Flesh, Zen Bones.  Two monks were once traveling together down a muddy road. A heavy rain was falling. Coming around a bend, they met a lovely girl in a silk kimono and sash, unable to cross a large mud puddle stretching across the road.

"Come on, girl," said one of the monks at once. Lifting her in his arms, he carried her over the mud.

The other monk didn’t say anything until later on.  After walking through rain, mile after mile, through the puddles and mud, they finally reached a lodging temple.  The younger monk could no longer resist saying something.  “Brother, you know that we monks don't go near females--especially not young, lovely ones. It is dangerous. Why did you do that?"

The older monk said nothing for a while and then looked at his friend.  “I left the girl there, hours and miles ago.  Why are you still carrying her?”

Over and over again, if we allow it, the words of Jesus, the presence of Christ, will disrupt our distractions, and like the prodigal son, we are brought to ourselves again. The love and power of Christ works on us and in us both through distractions and attentiveness. It creates unity, and so through the Spirit we are oned with Christ, and with Christ we are oned with the Creator.

Jesus wants us to know fully and clearly what the Gospel of Mark sometimes casts as a great secret—Jesus will die and rise again. We, on the other side of Easter, know this not as a secret but as a truth to be proclaimed throughout the world, even in Washington. Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again. Even with all our distractions, we, as his body in the world, already have his life in us. In him, we die and rise again, in faith, in life, and in life eternal.

May God speak to us even in our distractions that we may be brought again and again to the unity that is love eternal.

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

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Learning, Loving & Letting God Lead

A sermon for the Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost, September 16, 2012.  The lectionary readings are Isaiah 50:4-9a, Psalm 116:1-8,James 3:1-12, and Mark 8:27-38.

If you should drive out Interstate 66 toward West Virginia, you’ll come to Interstate 81.  Just south of that intersection is Strasburg, Virginia.  Though Strasburg is known for its antiques, its Civil War history, and I’ve gotten good apples there—I think it mostly for its landmark along interstate 81.  Right there, enormously poised by the side of the road are three gigantic crosses.  The tallest, the one in the middle is 150 feet tall.  (Just to give a sense of scale, the Washington Monument is 555 feet tall, but about 150 feet up is where you can see the change in the color of stone.)  In addition to the three giant crosses, put up by the Church of the Valley in Strasburg, on either side of the large, central cross are huge American flags.  

What do such crosses mean?  One cross might mean one thing.  Add two more and it evokes Calvary.  Add the flags, and the meaning multiplies.  The meaning of the cross is not self-evident. What does any cross mean?

The Supreme Court continues to wrestle with situations that feature crosses in used as memorials.  When they are placed on public or park land, there are questions about “church and state.”   When a cross is used in creative ways in an art project, should we be offended or is it something else altogether?  When one wears a cross as jewelry, what, exactly does it mean?

The cross, of course, was used as an instrument of persecution.  It was something like the cultural equivalent of an electric chair.  It was the means by which the State put to death criminals, and it carried with it shame, disgrace, embarrassment, and scandal.  

 But in our day, what power does the cross have?  Have we emptied it of power and meaning by overuse?  Or, are we able to answer in our own way, the question that seems to come out of today’s readings.  Jesus asks, “Who do you say that I am?” but he might be asking just as well, “What is my cross for you?  What is the intersection between my cross and your world?  Where do you experience death, but then allow God’s life to break in, change everything, and raise you to new life?  How do you take up your cross?

When Jesus asks, “Who do you say that I am?” Peter answers. In words the church calls the Confession of St. Peter, he goes out on a limb like he often does, he speaks more with faith than common sense and he says, “you are the Christ.” But Peter is not prepared for what this will mean for Jesus, or what it will mean for his followers.

Jesus talks about suffering and being rejected and being killed. But then, he talks about rising again after three days. This makes no sense to Peter, so he tries to stop Jesus from going in this direction.  But Jesus won’t hear of anything that lessens or lightens his way forward. He says, “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it; and whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it.”

And so it comes down not so much to lifting high the cross of Christ, as being willing to take up our own cross and follow in the way of Christ.

There are many ways of taking up our own cross, some dramatic; many not so dramatic. The scriptures today suggest at least three aspects, three marks, three qualities of taking up our cross.

The first is an aspect of learning. To take up our cross and follow Jesus will involve learning.  Isaiah says, “The Lord God has given me the tongue of those who are taught, that I may know how to sustain the weary with a word. Morning by morning he wakens, he wakens my ear to hear as those who are taught. The Lord God has opened my ear.” In other words, God has already brought Isaiah to the place of realizing that he doesn’t know everything, certainly not everything there is to know about God, or God’s ways. And so God teaches Isaiah. Even more, God gives Isaiah “the tongue of those who are taught,” which is to say a tongue that thinks before it speaks, a tongue that wonders where God is in this or that, a tongue that tries to be slow in its criticism of others and quick in its encouragement.

If you think about it, much of the time he spent with his disciples, Jesus was teaching them. Through his Holy Spirit alive in each of us, through (as Richard Hooker said) tradition, scripture and reason, Christ continues to teach us.

And what a good time for this scripture to be our lives, as the fall season is about to begin. Sunday school begins today.  The Adult Forum begins next week. Through the year there will be book studies, and Bible studies, and other opportunities for learning.

Imagine what All Souls would be like if we, as a parish, were open to learning from God how to take up our cross daily? Every nook and corner of this building would be filled with teachers and learners, hungry for the wisdom of God, aching to discern the ways of the Spirit, desperate to learn God’s direction. I pray for that day, and I invite you to do the same.

We are invited to take up our cross daily, and learning is a part of that. Loving is another aspect of taking up our cross.

The Second Reading today, the Epistle of James, is a love letter. It’s a love letter from James to the church spread out all over. You can tell it’s a love letter because it’s impatient, it’s full of anger, it’s full of desire, and full of vision. James knows what Christians can be, he knows who they’ve been called to be, but they’re falling way, way short. They’re settling. They’re taking it easy. And so he thunders away about God’s love and how God’s love needs to be shown not just in what we say or sing, but in what we do and in how we do it.

James says, “Faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.”  Our faith in the cross and the one who died and rose again from the cross has to be a part of our life, a part of our working, a part of our being. The cross is not standing on a hill, far, far away (not even on a hill in Virginia). It’s wherever there is someone who is living in oppression, it’s wherever there is someone who is hungry or living out of shelter, it’s where there is pain or crying or loss or death. The cross casts a shadow, and sometimes people live in that shadow, and they can’t see the light anymore. They can’t feel its warmth, they can’t be sure it’s even still a possibility. And so we are called to take that person by the hand and lead them around out of the cool, dark shadow and into a place of love and light and warmth. We are called to be Christ’s love in the world, one person at a time.

Taking up our cross daily is easier than we might suppose, really. If we are willing to learn from God, if we are able to love through Christ, and one more thing—if we are willing to let God do the leading

Sometimes this is the very place we stumble with our crosses. We have decided which cross we might like to carry. This is my cross, I say. I carry it in just such a way. I become comfortable carrying it, and decide that others should carry crosses just like mine. It becomes my cross, my effort and my glory. This might be all well and good and I might even be accomplishing quite a bit of work, but it becomes the will of John, not the will of God.

Saint Peter was confused by Jesus for exactly this reason. Not only did Jesus seems to keep changing the plan, but the closer Peter looked, the more his own nightmare came true—there was no plan. Or at least, there was no plan visible to the human eye. The plan was in the mind and heart of God, unfolding just as surely and timely as anything else with God unfolds. The only way to know that plan is to stay connected, to stay attentive, to be as close to God and as tuned into God as possible. That’s what Jesus did, and what he tried to show his disciples how to do.

On Good Friday, we venerate the Holy Cross.  We say and sing the antiphon from Good Friday,

We venerate your Cross, O Lord,
and praise and glorify your holy Resurrection:
for by virtue of the Cross,
joy has come to the whole world.

By virtue of the Cross, joy has come to the whole world. Through our faithful living and our willingness to take up our cross, by learning, by loving, and by letting God take the lead, joy continues to come to us and to the whole world.

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

Sunday, September 09, 2012

Open to Healing

Jesus and the Syrophoenician Woman by Rembrandt

A sermon for the Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost, September 9, 2012.  The lectionary readings are Isaiah 35:4-7a, Psalm 146, James 2:1-17, and Mark 7:24-37.

We could almost make today’s Gospel into a riddle or quiz. If we did, the question would be, “How many people are healed?” In the stories we’ve just heard, how many find healing?   

The story is almost only about one healing, because for a while, it looks like Jesus is going to pass the first woman by.  Jesus is in Tyre, a long way from home.  He’s moved beyond the familiar, out of those towns where people remember his mother and his father. He is in a northern area that today, would be in a part of Lebanon.  Though Jesus seems to be  trying to get away for a little while, no sooner does he get to this out-of-the-way place, that he meets a woman who asks for his help. 

Scripture doesn’t tell her name, but Mark the Evangelist does what he can to show that she’s a stranger and a foreigner to Jesus.  He refers to the woman by her ethnicity.  She’s a Syrophoenician.  He doesn’t bother with her name, but associates her with her people.  It’s like when we might label someone by their ethnicity or race—“that nice Indian family down the street,” or “that Middle Eastern man who works down the hall.”  Mark just calls her the Syrophoenician woman, so we instantly have a picture of how he (and Jesus) say her:  her strangeness and her foreign-ness. She is not a Jew. She is not from Galilee. But she approaches Jesus and asks him to heal her daughter.  And she approaches in faith.

This woman begs Jesus to cast out a demon from her little girl. But Jesus shrugs her off, repeating what must have been an expression of his day, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” Here, Jesus implies that the “children” are the children of Israel, God’s chosen people. Jesus understands his own mission (to the extent that he understands it) as being for Israel, for the Jews—not for others. And so, this woman’s problems are simply outside his purview, beyond his job description. But the woman snaps back, “It may not be fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs— but even the dogs under the table eat the children’s scraps.”

And then something happens. Something opens up. Something happens to the little girl who is at home, not even present, and something happens to Jesus. The little girl is healed. And Jesus suddenly present in a new way. Jesus understands this woman, also, as one of God’s children-- every bit as much as he or anyone else.  His own vision is expanded.

The second story of healing involves Jesus meeting a man who is deaf and mute. Jesus takes him to the side, places his fingers into the man’s ears, spits and touches. Jesus sees the man, feels the man, and moves very closely into the man’s space and world. Ephphatha, he says:  the Aramaic command form, “be opened.”  “Open up now.”  “Clear way, hear, speak, and live.” These are loaded words, loaded with new life for the man.
And so, if we’re keep count, there’s the healing of the little girl, the Syrophoenician’s daughter and there’s the healing of the man who is deaf and mute.

But isn’t more going on?  The mother of the little girl is healed also, isn’t she?  This mother who has worried about her daughter, who has probably prayed for her daughter, who perhaps has tracked down and stalked Jesus the healer—this woman is in some ways healed—healed of her worry, her pain, her heavy heart. 

But let’s not stop there. I mean, if we really think about all that’s being said in this Gospel, is it too much to suggest that Jesus, too, is “healed?”

Jesus is healed as his own mind, perspective, sense of mission, sense of himself—his whole self-understanding is opened to God in new ways.  When Jesus heals the man who is deaf and mute, he names that healing in terms of openness.  Ephphatha   “Be opened,” he says.  In his interaction with the Syrophoenician woman and the healing of her daughter, it’s also as though God says to Jesus, “Ephphatha.”  And all kinds of things are opened to new life.  The woman, the girl, Jesus, those watching, the early followers of Jesus, the foreigners, and any who might have been kept outside the formal religious tradition of the day. Through this woman God opens the male-dominated society up to the reality of a woman who is smart and persistent. And God uses this woman even to open up the heart of Jesus.

Jesus is open to the kind of vision Isaiah offers.  A vision in which

The eyes of the blind are be opened,
and the ears of the deaf unstopped;
then the lame leap like a deer,
and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy.
Waters break forth in the wilderness,
and streams in the desert;
the burning sand becomes a pool,
and the thirsty ground springs of water.

That’s some vision, but it’s what we, too, can encounter if we’re open to God’s spirit.  Whether something is OPEN can mean all the difference in the world.

Sometimes when I’m on the campus of Virginia Seminary in Alexandria, people ask me, “how long does it take to get to your church?”  That depends.  As any of you who come from Virginia well know, it depends on marathons, and special events, and mostly on the openness of Rock Creek Parkway.  On a weekday morning, with the parkway open, I can leave the church parking lot and roll into the seminary lot in exactly 14 minutes.  But that depends on things being open.

In today’s Washington Post Magazine there’s a great story on technology and ancient texts in St. Catherine’s Monastery in Egypt.  Because St. Catherine’s has been open since the 6th century, God has used those monks and that special place in amazing ways.  The primary text that informs our scriptures today comes from the Codex Sinaiticus, which St. Catherine’s began to share with the wider world in the 19th century.  Since then, other texts have been found, preserved, and deciphered.  Now, technology allows for a close reading of palimspsets, pages that have been scraped clean and written over again.  The image of Christ Pantocrator, Christ the Ruler of the Universe, thought to be the oldest icon in existence, comes from St. Catherine’s.  All of this, because the monastery and the people within, have had the courage and the faith to be open to a world that sometimes is full of violence, greed, and ignorance;  but just as often is a place of wonder, and learning, and growth. 

This week we observe the anniversary of September 11, 2001.  The terrorism and violence of that day shut down cities, roads, airways, and people for a little while.  In New York City, there had been ways to navigate much of midtown underground, but as of September 12, many of those passageways were closed.  Some continue to be close.  But over time, with healing, much has opened.  Fear of those we perceive as foreign or different has even improved a little, though we have a long way to go.   

Our own parish tries to be open in new ways.  Sometimes we get it right and sometimes we stumble, but we’re open to the Spirit’s leading.

“Be opened,” are the simple, stark words that Jesus uses. But what mighty words!

If Jesus were standing in front of us right now, perhaps with one hand on our shoulder and looking us square in the eye and then saying, “Be opened,” what might that loving command call out of us?  Healing?  Growth?  Renewal?  Forgiveness?  What would that enable? What new chapter of life might that launch for you? What new person in you might that opening create?

There’s old prayer from Salisbury, England that has been used for centuries to ask for God’s help and healing.  And on this Sunday beginning a new season, perhaps it can lead us to new openness:

May God be in our head, and in our understanding.
God be in our eyes, and in our looking.
God be in our mouth, and in our speaking.
God be in our heart, and in our thinking.
God be at our end, and at our departing.
May we be open to his power, to his healing and to his love.

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

Sunday, September 02, 2012

Setting aside appearances and living from the heart

A sermon for the Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost, September 2, 2012.  The lectionary readings are Deuteronomy 4:1-2, 6-9, Psalm 15, James 1:17-27, and  Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23.

Someone gave me a book a few years ago entitled simply, “How to Dress for Every Occasion.” The book claims to be written by none other than “the Pope.” It’s a silly book, imagining how hard it must be for the Pope to decide what to wear before going to a movie, going to the beach, or getting on an airplane. Does he wear sandals to the beach? Should he remove his miter in a movie theater?  What does he do when red shoes seems to clash with everything?

Well, I’m not sure the Pope has to worry much about what to wear, but we’re not the Pope.  Most of us do think about what to wear.  We think about how we appear, how we come across to other people. Will we make the right impression? Will we impress the person we need to impress? Or might we risk over-doing it, and need to tone down our appearance? Public relations firms, agents, coaches and even friends sometimes help us manage our image. They help us think even more carefully about how we appear to others. Our work, our families, our friends—virtually our whole culture suggests that image is everything. But today’s Gospel challenges that idea.

In fact, Jesus says just the opposite. While we might spend a lot of energy on appearances, Jesus gives us the good news that it’s what is inside that really counts. It’s what is inside of us that defines us, that controls us, and that affects how we treat one another. It’s what is inside us that either moves us toward God, or encourages us away from God. It’s on the inside that conversion begins. It’s on the inside that healing begins.

The Gospel comes out of the Pharisees’ question concerning the disciples and their eating habits. It’s about the outward appearance of eating and drinking. The Pharisees and scribes watch Jesus and his followers and they don’t approve. Those who follow Jesus are taking religious shortcuts. They don’t seem to value the tradition, or even to be acquainted with the tradition in some cases. And the particular point in today’s Gospel revolves around these religious people noticing that Jesus’ followers don’t wash their hands properly before eating.

Mark the Evangelist gives us a little more background about these folks. He says “The Pharisees, and all the Jews, do not eat unless they thoroughly wash their hands, thus observing the tradition of the elders; and they do not eat anything from the market unless they wash it; and there are also many other traditions that they observe, the washing of cups, pots, and bronze kettles.”

But when the Pharisees ask Jesus about this, Jesus sees to the very heart of the matter. Jesus quotes Isaiah to them, suggesting that they’ve strayed from the commandments of God (which are really very simple) and they’ve gotten all clouded up with rules and traditions made by humans. And then Jesus delivers his zinger: “There is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile. For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come ….” and then Jesus goes on to list the whole host of evil things that might come out of us.

Are there ways in which our rules, our order, our ritual, our procedures ever create barriers between people and God? That’s the real question that Jesus puts to us. Are there things we need to be free of, in order to follow God more closely, more directly? Are there ways in which we may be called to “loosen up” spiritually, so that we might see or hear or know God, as God is trying to meet us?
It’s not what we put into our bodies that gets us into trouble: it’s not what we eat and drink, or how we say our prayers, or whether we kneel or stand. It’s what comes out. Our “words made flesh,” our actions matter:—our words to strangers, our words to family, our words to other people of faith. Our actions matter, as the epistle from James made clear earlier: “…[B]e doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves…. Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.”

What comes out of us is often in the form of words, but words can come from our mouth, and they can come from our heart.  Last Saturday I was at a conference that included three speakers: Richard Rohr, Phyllis Tickle, and Andrew Harvey.  Each has a fairly large personality in a different way.  But at the conclusion of the conference, the three of them plus one other woman who done a workshop at the conference, were on a panel.  The question was asked, “How do you define ‘spirituality’?” 

Rohr answered in his characteristically centered and deeply Franciscan way.  Tickle answered with history and humor.  Harvey answered in a way that tried to dazzle, but managed to make it all about himself.  And then it was the turn of the fourth panelist, the Rev. Kate Braestrup.  Braestrup is a Unitarian minister, author, and chaplain. When the question came to her, “How do you define spirituality,” she paused.

“Well,” she said, “that’s sort of difficult, because I don’t think of myself as a very spiritual person.  I’m better at doing than being.  I guess, spirituality sort of happens, in the moment.  I guess it’s a little like the time when I was volunteering at a nursing home and a woman needed help going to the bathroom.  I helped her.  She was obese and a double amputee because of diabetes.  And there we were in a tiny, enclosed bathroom.  She was embarrassed.  I was embarrassed.  But in the middle of our awkwardness, there was a moment when I looked at her and she looked at me, and we were in love—not the kind of love you can really tell your family about—another kind, entirely.  That moment was important, and I guess it has something to do with spirituality.”* 

Each of those speakers had given us words—some good and helpful; some not so much.  But the last speaker’s words were of a different quality, entirely.  Hers were from a very deep place, from the heart, from her experience, from her pain and awkwardness, and from her highest hopes and best intentions. 

This is how Jesus wants us to speak—not for appearance sake, not for the smoothness or the spin, but from the deep place where God is in each of us. 

Our words matter. Our actions matter.  May we live out of the depth of God’s love and mercy, so that what comes out of us might extend God’s love in the world. 

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

*With apologies to Kate Braestrup, if I’ve gotten this wrong in some way.  This is how I recall hearing her story and found it to be one of the most meaningful moments of the conference. She was part of the closing panel discussion at the Downeast Spirituality Conference, August 24-25, 2012, Ellsworth, ME


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