Monday, July 28, 2014

God knows

To listen to last week's sermon, click here.

To listen to this sermon (below) click here.

Proper 12A.  27 July 2014.[*]

Alexander D. MacPhail



            What was your first experience of prayer?  I can't remember it.  My guess is that it was table grace.  The table was set.  Steam was rising from the food from the oven.  And heads are bowed.  "Bless us, O Lord, and these thy gifts, which we have received from thy bounty…"  I know we sang the grace, too.  "For health and strength, and daily food we give thee thanks, O Lord." 


            But what was the first experience of really praying?  What was the first experience of more than just the words in the book?  Perhaps your parents brought you to church and your Sunday school teacher said, "We're going to sing `Jesus loves me,' and then we're going to have a little prayer.  Does anyone have anybody they would like to pray for?  Yes, Cindy?" 


            "I'd like to pray for my daddy.  He's going out of town next week to a conference, and I want him to be safe and bring me something when he comes home." 


            "Okay, Cindy…well, we can pray for your daddy to be safe, but let's just leave it at that.  Brian, did you raise your hand?"


            "My mother said that the lady next door is sick.  She's got some sort of condition that makes her want to go inside when I go out to play.  Mommy says that she can only stay outside to weed her garden if I stay really quiet, and I tried to stay really quiet, but you know…sometimes when my little sister comes out and tries to ride on my bicycle I get angry and I yell at her and she yells back, and mommy says that it's making the lady next door get really sick.  And I don't want her to be sick, but my sister is really mean, so I guess I want to pray that the lady next door feels better and that my little sister just stays away from my stuff…"


            "Okay, Brian…  Patricia?"


            "Yeah…I want to pray for a million dollars." 

            "Why do you want a million dollars, Patty?"

            "I don't know.  I just want it.  I could buy a lot of things with it."

            "And you could give some of it to the church, right?"  (Pause.)


            "Patty, with a million dollars you could afford to give a lot of money to the church, and to the people around you who really need help, and you'd still be able to buy toys and candy.  So maybe to the church, too?"



            Did any of you have those kinds of conversations with your parents or teachers about prayer?   The grown up tries to steer the child ever so gently to pray both honestly and unselfishly.  And it's hard to do with children, because they know how to ask for things they want—but to think about others—to think about a big picture is new and confusing.


            And prayer continues to be a mystery—how it works, what it means...  When we pray the words of The Book of Common Prayer we are borrowing someone else's language, but we fill those words with our hearts so that the sentiment of those words resonates into us and out of us.  For all Christians who worship with fixed liturgy—like us—that is how we pray together.  Our many temperaments find a common expression in common prayer.  For some Christians of other backgrounds, the prayers in the book seem inauthentic—like they don't really come from the heart—when in fact, for people who are part of this tradition—the words in the book may be very authentic.  The words in the book serve to bring out the intentions that roam around inside of us and have trouble coming out on their own.


            You go into the pharmacy to buy a birthday card and you stand there reading through them—trying to find the one that says what you would write, if you could.   It's an interesting exercise, because the greeting card writers try to come up with cards that really say what we want to say.  And if you care about that relationship, you will stand there and really think through those words and how the person might receive them.


            Several years ago near Valentine's Day I was looking through the cards for Karin, and I was interested to see how many cards used the expression, "have you by my side."  I wondered if "by my side" was thought to be more masculine than "with me."  Those are two prepositional phrases that mean, essentially, the same thing; but "with me," somehow sounds a little weak next to "by my side." 


            How often do you drive to the store or work or wherever, and in your mind you're trying to find the right greeting card to send God?  Is it the one with the big red rose on the front and the big, heavy cursive lines that say, "Dear God, you have always been there for me.  Through thick and thin.  Through storm and calm.  In the times of my distress you have brought peace.  In the moments of quiet, you have been my strength.  I have always been glad that you have been…by my side."  Does that sound right?    


            Or is it the funny card?  The Shoebox Greeting lady in the frumpy hat and sunglasses.  "Lordy, lordy…look who is older than dirt!  Literally!  Love you lots, God."   I personally wouldn't send that card, but I wouldn't criticize you if you did.


            I'm sure God would love to get any greeting card you'd like to send.  Just the prayer that says, I love you, I'm thinking about you.  Even if you made it with construction paper and crayons, like children.  Little G, big O, oddly shaped D, and you run out of space to write anything else.


            Or maybe you'd like to write a letter to God, more like a grown up. 


            "Dear God, Thank you for your assistance in connection with a few of the matters that have recently come before me.  I'm afraid that some folks have just been commended to my prayers, several of them are very sick and, as you know, my concern is for their health and well being.  Please find enclosed the list of names and their attending conditions.  I am, of course, deeply grateful, and Karin joins me in sending our love to the communion of saints and the company of heaven.   Yours very faithfully…"


            Too formal?  Perhaps.  But sometimes formality is easier, sometimes formality is actually where we are.


            But I have known, and I am sure you have, too, what it is to not be able to pray.  To have something come up in your life or in a friend's life, and you have absolutely no idea how to pray for them.  It can't be reduced to getting something, or getting rid of something.  It's not as simple as that, because there are complexities to the situation where we honestly do not know what the best thing would be…or what needs to change and doesn't need to change. 


            I have known situations where the whole mess seemed so completely, ridiculously tangled that I was seriously in doubt as to whether anything could make it better, and then one little, tiny thing…something seemingly so insignificant in the grand total…or something that I thought could never in a million years be changed, shifted only slightly, and the whole situation resolved itself almost automatically. 


            How do you pray to the air traffic controller who art in heaven?  How do you pray to someone who already knows what you need before you ask it, and who is likely going to answer your prayer with a different answer than you ever thought possible? How do you pray to the air flight controller who art in heaven?


            In situations like those, when the whole thing is just so overwhelming, it reminds me of this section from Paul's letter to the Romans.  "The Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep words.  And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God."


            It is such a comfort to think that God knows… God knows.


            When you're driving in your car…

            When you're sitting alone…

            When the doctor is having you wait…

            When you're mowing the grass and your brain is darting from family to friends, from sick list to personal needs…

            When you're missing a loved one…

            When you need someone to say "I love you…"

            When you heart breaks because you don't know how it will ever get better…

            When you have felt so bad that you can't feel anything at all…


            We do not know how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit intercedes for us with sighs too deep…way too deep for words.  And God, who searches the heart, knows


            Prayer is such a mystery.  When you consider all that we know about God, through the life and teaching of Jesus, just the thought of addressing a prayer to God in the oratory of your heart can seem overwhelming. 


            I think Paul would have wanted us to know that being overwhelmed is not a sin.  Being overwhelmed by life, by family, by situations beyond our control is part of the deal.  I'm not being anti-intellectual here, but I really don't think that our minds are supposed to handle all of it.  I think we are meant to have faith, and to remain faithful in the midst of the crazy.


            I think sometimes utter silence, even confused silence, may be the most authentic prayer.  Because, if Paul is right, the Spirit is searching through all of that.  The Spirit is seeing the pain and the anxiety alongside the love, the hope…all rolled into one. 


            I think what I'm trying to say, and what I think Paul is saying, is don't be afraid of the holy silence that surrounds the overwhelming problems in your life.  Don't be afraid.  Take heart.  God knows.




            I want to offer a prayer written by the Trappist monk, Thomas Merton.  If you are overwhelmed by difficulties and are trying to be faithful in the midst of uncertainty, I think you will find this helpful. 



MY LORD GOD, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please You does in fact please You. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart  from that desire. And I know that, if I do this , You will lead me by the right road, though I may know nothing about it. Therefore I will trust You always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for You are ever with me, and You will never leave me to face my perils alone.




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Go Ye Into All the World and Preach the Gospel

[*] Adapted from 24 July 2011

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

The only category that really matters

Proper 11A.  20 July 2014.

Alexander D. MacPhail



            As I read and pray and ponder, I am becoming convinced that there is a transition taking place in our cultural and religious landscape, and I want to share with you what I have been thinking.


            If I could boil it down, it seems to me that there is a weariness with categories.  For instance, you and I might still be willing to identify ourselves as part of a political party, but we're more quick to qualify what about that party we subscribe to.  We want to give some nuance to it, because the category that might come up in someone's mind would not adequately represent all that we really think and believe.


            The category for religion might also need to be nuanced.  If someone asked, I would say I'm a Christian, but because "Christian" can mean that so many things, I would want to nuance that by saying that I'm an Episcopalian.  And, of course, even that category can mean different things to different people, so perhaps even the denomination would need to be defined. 


            And as you may know, Christians are not the only ones who face this kind of issue.  This is true for Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, and people of other traditions.  In what has been called a post-modern era, we have recognized a great diversity within our society and that of other cultures. 


            And with the various forms of social media, we have many ways of expressing our uniqueness.  In fact, we rather celebrate the fact that the categories that once defined our culture are passé.  We no longer strive to grow into a particular, confined image.  We want to create our own—or perhaps I should say, discover our own.


            Now, one can approach these kinds of thoughts with some concern, because we want to know our place in the world, and we can feel very threatened by not knowing where we are, or not feeling that we share the same story with others. 


            There were categories or narratives that we were brought up with.  I remember when I was a little boy that one of our extended family members, when she visited, would always ask me, "Do you have a girl?"  I wasn't more than eleven years old, maybe twelve, and no, I didn't have a girl.  But the expectation was there that I would be dating. 


            The narrative was once that you date around, go steady, get engaged, get married and have children.  All of those categories, and the narrative that links them, have become optional.  You might date around, but maybe not.  I never did.  You might get engaged, but maybe not.  You might get married.  You might have children.  Nowadays, you might have children, and then get engaged, and then finally meet someone! 


            But see even if many of us continue to live the traditional narratives of marriage, family, civic organizations and churches, we do it with a different kind of spirituality.  The spirituality that is passé is doing things purely out of duty or pattern.  You should do this, so you do it.  A lot of people don't think like that anymore.


            The spirituality now is to do things because they are authentic to you—they feel right—they feel congruent with your idea of who you are, and what you want to be about.  It's not that duty is completely absent, but the duty is more toward self than the categories, you see?


            And the irony of this—from where I sit—is that while many people think these transitions spell the end of the Church, I think they describe the way of Jesus Christ perfectly.   


            We forget that when Jesus emerged in first century Palestine, he was coming from and to a culture that was centered on duty.  You have a duty to Rome; you have a duty to the Temple.  You have a duty to your synagogue, to your family name.  You know your place in the world because you knew who was above you and who was below you; and that was that.  There was no upward mobility.  The poor were poor; the rich were rich. 


            And Jesus came into this inflexible culture of duty, and preached a spirituality of the heart.  The Pharisees had codified virtually every aspect of living.  And Jesus told them that they were honoring God with their lips but their hearts were not engaged. 


            He said,  No.  God has made each of us a true and unique self, and then called us into a living relationship with him.  Life, therefore, is about caring for each other as the unique and special selves we all are, and engaging our hearts with the living God, who is Father of us all. 


            And that remains both the treasure and the challenge of Christianity to this day.  It is so much easier to live more in the spirituality of duty.  It's easier because it gives you some lists to check off.  Yes, I have prayed my prayers this morning.  Yes, I have paid the bills.  Yes, I saw that person in need, and I attended to them.  And it feels good; it gives dignity and structure to life, which we need; but the treasure of this faith is found a bit deeper.  It is found in the spirituality that seeks God.


            And what I mean is that this faith of ours comes into our very being and emotions.  That God's love is set free from however we keep it at bay, and we allow it to enter us and enthrall us. 


            There is an old, old story—a parable, really—from the Desert Fathers, those 3rd century Christian mystics, who were really the first monks.  It goes like this:


Abbot Lot came to Abbot Joseph and said: Father, according as I am able, I keep my little rule, and my little fast, my prayer, meditation and contemplative silence; and according as I am able I strive to cleanse my heart of thoughts: now what more should I do? The elder rose up in reply and stretched out his hands to heaven, and his fingers became like ten lamps of fire, He said: Why not be totally changed into fire?


Lot is checking the boxes; Joseph is seeking God—seeking to be transformed.


            You can hear that in the Psalm for today. (139)


Lord, you have searched me out and known me; you know my sitting down and my rising up; you discern my thoughts from afar.  You trace my journeys and my resting-places and are acquainted with all my ways.  Indeed, there is not a word on my lips, but you, O Lord, know it altogether. You press upon me behind and before and lay your hand upon me. Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is so high that I cannot attain to it. Where can I go then from your Spirit? where can I flee from your presence? If I climb up to heaven, you are there; if I make the grave my bed, you are there also. If I take the wings of the morning and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, Even there your hand will lead me and your right hand hold me fast.


God surrounds you and me, says the Psalmist.  And even if we run and hide, we are still known, and still loved by our heavenly Father.


            A couple weeks ago I talked about Sunday school, and the stories of God calling Samuel, Moses, David, which teach us that God initiates relationship.  God comes to them and speaks their names.  And within the sacred text we learn that God wishes to call them to do something, but more importantly, to be something.  They are called to be people of faith and obedience. 


            You can read those stories and say, "Well…good for them, but it didn't happen for me."  For years, and years, I thought that about the story of Jesus coming for his baptism.  Do you remember that story?  And as Jesus comes out the water, the voice from heaven—the voice of the Father says—"This is my beloved son, on whom my favor rests." 


            For years, I read that story with detachment.  It was about Jesus, not about you and me.  We weren't born in Bethlehem.  We weren't the Messiah.  That's Jesus!  But I was missing the story completely.  It wasn't until I started reading Henri Nouwen's books that I began to understand the mystery.


            You see, Jesus is unique, without question.  But he shares his belovedness with us.  When the voice of the Father says, "This is my beloved," we are meant to receive those words over us as well.  Samuel was a beloved son; David was a beloved Son.  You and I are beloved sons and daughters of God. 


            The ministry of Jesus from stem to stern is about giving us his belovedness.  Feeding, healing, loving, dying.  He gives us bread and wine and said, "Look!  I've run out of ways to describe it!"


            "Take, eat.  Drink.  This is me…this is you.  There is no division; there is no separation."


            And since that category—to come back to what I was saying about categories—is a relationship of love, we are free to be ourselves with our heavenly Father.  No more do we need to measure up to any society's view of what we are, or should be.  We are children of God, and that is the only category that really matters.






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Go Ye Into All the World and Preach the Gospel


Tuesday, July 8, 2014

You are a beautiful gift that God has given the world

To listen, click here.

Proper 9A.  6 July 2014.

Alexander D. MacPhail



            I was recently going through my garage, cleaning things out.  Some years ago, my parents brought boxes of books and keepsakes from my childhood, and I was going through them.  I happened to find some of the books from my years in Sunday school, which brought back memories. 


          Sunday school in the church of my childhood was fairly large.  We had a Nursery all the way to Senior High youth with children at every age.  I remember the smell of Ivory soap in the bathrooms and Ritz crackers and lemonade for snack.  And I remembered teachers and smiles, and friends from my childhood that I had forgotten.


          Perhaps you, too, can remember bits and pieces from the church when you were a child.  My father remembers marching off to Sunday school to "Onward Christian Soldiers," and that somehow the lady at the piano in the basement was in sync with the organ upstairs in the church.  How did she do that?!


          When I think of Sunday school, I mostly think of the Old Testament.  I think of the mural on the cinderblock wall of the corridor of Sunday school rooms with depictions of the animals on the Arc and scenes from the Bible.  It's all mostly a blur now, but I remember learning about Noah and Abraham and Sarah, Jacob and Esau, Samuel in the Temple.  Do you remember Samuel in the Temple?



          When you're child it reads a bit differently than when you're older.  Samuel is a youth, helping his father Eli, a priest in the Temple.  Samuel is sleeping in the Temple near the Arc of Covenant, and he hears a voice calling to him, "Samuel, Samuel."  And he thinks it's the voice of his father, so he runs to Eli and says, "Here I am, for you called me."  Eli says, "I didn't call you, go lie back down."  Again the voice says, "Samuel, Samuel," and Samuel runs to Eli, and this time Eli says, "If the voice calls again, say, "Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening."         Again Samuel lies down, and again the voice calls him, "Samuel, Samuel!"  And Samuel says, "Speak, for your servant is listening."  And God speaks and calls Samuel.


          When you are about seven or eight years old, and you learn that almighty God wished to speak with a boy in the Temple, it will get your attention.  You may even start to wonder if you will hear your own name being called in the middle of the night.


          These are the stories that can grow inside of you and awaken your heart and mind to the possibility that maybe there is something more to this church-thing than meets the eye. 


          I remember learning about Jesus, but not till later.  My memory is that the foundational stories were Abraham, Moses, Noah, Samuel, David, Elijah.  And the impartation of each of those stories is that God can, and may, call you.  And since some of them were very young when they heard the voice of God, that even now, as a child, God may call you, and ask you to serve.


          And with that idea comes a kind of fear that God will ask us to do something that we don't want to do, or worry that we can't do; but next to that is a feeling of delight that God may want me to do it.  That somehow I might be chosen for a reason that I can't see, which is also a bit terrifying.  It's like playing cards with someone who knows what you're holding better than you do, and even knows the end of the game.


          Now, I don't want you to think that this is just about me; because these were the themes of Sunday school, and they are also the themes of Christianity: that God can call you.  It is only later that the idea becomes more narrowly focused as a path toward ordination, or a path toward this role or that role in the church.  But even then, the idea of call gets domesticated.  It comes out from the mystery of God's presence in the future and our part to play in how it unfolds; and in time, it rather sadly gets down to the fact that we need an usher, and you have a nice smile. 


          I don't mean that to seem disrespectful, or to suggest for one instant that the various roles in the church are meaningless or unspiritual.  But if we're not careful, we sort of grow out of our holy imagination as we grow up.  We begin to think of greater or lesser calls from God.  And doing that can have disastrous effects on our spirituality, because none of us can see the whole picture. 


          I don't know what you would call this, but there are people who have a gift for making other people feel safe.  What would call that?     It's not that they are all that strong physically or emotionally; but they are people who, when you talk with them, you feel like you are somehow protected.  That's a spiritual gift. 


          It may be under the gift of hospitality—a gift which is far more than hosting someone at your house.  Hospitality is making space.  Being receptive.  Being able to take someone's self into your life without judgment—without trying to change them, or become like them, but just to live alongside them. 


          And maybe these gifts are not even something that you know you have!  If you think, "Well, I'm not really anything special," you probably have no idea of the place you have in the lives around you.  


          I have met a lot of Christians who have done this and that in the church.  Usher, Altar Guild, choir, vestry.  And they pray and give and support; and they still think they're nothing special.  If you think you are that person, believe me, you are very special.  What you don't see is how you are loved by the people in this church.   You have no idea. 


          The gift that maybe I should call "the foundational gift" is the self that God created—your unique presence, wherever you may be.  Foundationally, God has created you and called you into a living relationship.  No one can take that away. 


          No one else can walk into the room they way you do, with your own story and your own set of perspectives and gifts.  Your own presence is a gift, wherever you go.  You might be a source of strength and encouragement for someone, and not even know it. 


          When I consider the people I have known who have been faithful Christians, who have helped me understand what baptism means, none of them have been people who considered themselves special or set apart by God.  But in my mind, they all were.  If you search your own heart and life, you will find those people, too, I'm sure of it.


          In fact, if you were to be honest, they probably—spiritually speaking—kneel beside you every Sunday.  These are the men and women who taught you to pray; who taught you to give.  And they weren't just Sunday school teachers, or ushers—they were who they were, authentically themselves.  Through them you came to learn a little bit along the way. 


          Actually, you learned a lot from them, when you think about it.  Unless you've told them how much they mean to you, they probably don't know.  And they probably had no idea that their simple gifts and presence made such an impact on your life.


          You are one of those people, too.  Please don't forget that.  You, too, have been called by God to be you in this time, and in this place, with your own unique self and gifts.  And the people in your life—some you may know, but many you probably don't—think the world of you.  Your ministry to them is far deeper than you can possibly imagine.


          And so there is a sermon from Sunday school.  I learned it when I was about 8 years old.  Who you are has been called by God, and what you do as the person you are is a beautiful gift that God has given the world.   







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Go Ye Into All the World and Preach the Gospel