NOTHING IS IMPOSSIBLE WITH GOD, AN ANNUNCIATION PRAYER

On this end of the parish hall, where my office sits, things are quiet once again. There’s some coming and going down the hall, in the kitchen; folks getting ready for the fish dinner Friday: bustling, cleaning, prepping. And I, for my part, am supposed to be working on any number of things connected to Holy Week and Easter, not to mention a few bits of diocesan work I’m wrapping up and, oh right, summer camp and General Convention, both of which will be here before I know it.

Late yesterday afternoon, I dumped in a box a bunch of loose papers which had becoming nothing more than an annoying pile of clutter; it’s now titled “Open & File after Easter.” I told myself I was going to focus on the people and projects and things which God was placing in front of me right now – not yesterday, not even tomorrow.  I said I’d be more present in these hectic days, more present to, well, being present. And I’ll let God fill in the spaces I might leave open, which I seldom do anyway.

I will get around to the paperwork and these other things. I will, I told myself.

And then I worked until 9:30pm.

I’m not such a good learner.

Earlier today, we gathered, as we regularly do, for mid-day healing prayers and Holy Communion in the church. Generally, it’s a quiet half-hour of contemplation and prayer, occasionally interrupted by someone coming forward to the altar rail.  I lay hands on them and ask God to heal them. Communion follows, a simple yet intimate and holy gathering. Joking, as per usual, JoAnn said I should put up a sign that read, “Handicapped ONLY on Wednesdays.” She was referring to the average age of those who show up, mid-day.

Today is the Feast of the Annunciation, the day Gabriel announced to Mary news that would change the world; March 25 being nine months – the time it’d take a baby boy to grow in the womb – before Jesus’ birthday. The gospel reading for today is a scene from Luke’s first chapter, the story featuring that lively conversation between Gabriel and Mary, herself a young, confused but by no means unassuming girl.(Lk.1:26-38)  I love the back-and-forth, the give-and- take; it’s kind of like a bargaining session. For some reason, today, what stood out for me was Mary’s own “Huh?” when Gabriel shows up. What gets her going is not merely the fact that an angel is in her room; it’s not bafflement, but that she’s puzzled, perplexed at his strange greeting! (Lk.1:29) The conversation ensues: he has a promise, she has questions; he has wisdom, she has strength.

“Well and good,” she (kind of) says, “but how is this supposed to happen?” To which Gabriel says: “For nothing will be impossible with God.” (v.37)

Nothing.

Will be impossible.

With God.

Nothing.

I said these words to Kitty, to Charlotte, to JoAnn. Kitty’s the oldest of those three, Charlotte and JoAnn are quick to point out; she’s 90. The other two aren’t far behind, though, and they’ve all lived fascinating, rich, full lives. They are also, one to another, dealing with their limitations and their struggles, confronting their own mortality in ways which are, somedays, difficult; other days marked by at least a hint of a smile; better: a smirk.

“’Nothing will be impossible with God’ scripture says. Do you believe it?” I asked. One shrugged a halfway answer; it seemed to sit heavily on all. No one gave me a straight-up “Yes!”  Good.  At this point in life, no one’s studying for the test. It’s time to get real. Time to take off the masks and be honest: “Lord, I don’t know what you’re doing and why I’m even here. I don’t know why I’ve outlived my own husband,” I could hear the prayers at night; “I know my life is filled with good things and that all is in your hand but …” These are real thoughts, real prayers, real lives. That’s why we pray, not because we have the answers or because we once had the answer but we’re afraid we’ve drifted too far from it. We pray because we know no other way to live. We pray life. We pray our lives, as rich and textured and, sometimes, bumpy and perplexing as they may be. We pray our lives.

“Nothing will be impossible with God” is precisely such a prayer, in and of itself. When you do believe it, pray it: “Nothing will be impossible with God.” And when you don’t believe it, especially when you don’t believe it, pray it: “Nothing will be impossible with God.” When you don’t know the answer or what the plan is or what you might even hope to have God do, if ever God was going about doing what you were asking God to do, pray it: “Nothing will be impossible with God.”

Their lives, JoAnn’s, Kitty’s, Charlotte’s – yours and my life, too – are probably, more often than we care to admit, caught up in this prayer. Most likely, we’ve been praying this prayer, day in and day out, even though our lips may not utter the words and the thought may not even cross our mind.  “Nothing will be impossible with God.”  Our life is its own offering to God, and a constant journey toward the One who reveals Himself to us, just as with Mary, time and time again.

With Kitty back in the summer of 2012
With Kitty back in the summer of 2012

St. Augustine said as much, I reminded them, way back in his day, preaching to the people in northern Africa that “God created us without us, but he did not will to save us without us.” (Sermon 169)  This may be one of those things we see a bit more clearly at the end of our life, when we are facing the limits of our mortality head on, but I, too, see glimpses of it, faintly and sometimes, at the end of a day.  I, too, see this mystery when I remember that I’m also a partner with God in this gift called creation; that I have a responsibility and a role to play; that I am asked to bless and heal and love and share; that I, too, have a role to play in my own salvation and that salvation is not mine, alone, but ours, only ours, a collective returning to God in Christ. “God did not will to save us without us,” the good Doctor preached, which is nothing more than yet one more invitation to make our lives a prayer – a richly textured, very real, heartfelt prayer, not only with our lips but with so much more.

Here we are, gathered for a simple lunch on Annunciation afternoon - March 25, 2015
Here we are, gathered for a simple lunch on Annunciation afternoon – March 25, 2015

PRAISES SING TO GOD THE KING, AND PEACE TO MEN ON EARTH

On Sunday morning, April 23, 1865, the Rev’d Phillips Brooks set aside the sermon he was otherwise planning to preach at his church in Philadelphia and made note of a different, a more somber event.  On that very day, the Pullman car funeral procession carrying the body of Abraham Lincoln – assassinated in Washington, DC eight days earlier – had stopped and the President’s body was laid in state in Philadelphia’s Independence Hall, on its way to where he would be laid to rest in his hometown of Springfield, IL.  Thousands of Philadelphians came out to view the body, and just a few blocks away that morning, in Holy Trinity Episcopal Church, Phillips Brooks – then regarded as one of the finest preachers in America – told his congregation that he wished to, instead, pay attention to what he called “that sacred presence in our midst.”

THE REV’D PHILLIPS BROOKS
Born 1835 – Died 1893
Rector of Church of the Holy Trinity, Philadelphia, 1862 – 1869
Rector of Trinity Church (Copley Square), Boston, 1869 – 1891
Bishop of Massachusetts, 1891 – 1893

Reading the sermon, even nearly a century-and-a-half later, one still feels the sadness, the shock, the gut-wrenching despair which overcame the nation.  Beginning slowly, almost fearfully wading into his subject, Phillips Brooks told the congregation he was going to talk about the “character of Abraham Lincoln, the impulses of his life, the causes of his death.”  And because that surely struck a chord in the audience, Brooks in the next breath mentioned:  “I can only promise to speak calmly, conscientiously, affectionately…”  “It is the great boon of such characters as Mr. Lincoln’s,” Brooks preached, “that they reunite what God has joined together and man has put asunder.  In him was vindicated the greatness of real goodness and the goodness of real greatness.”

How we all long for “the greatness of real goodness, and the goodness of real greatness.”  How hungry we are for genuine, random acts of kindness, and how we love to hear about them – love for loveliness’ sake, kindness from the heart.  And how our hearts are broken, as they have been too often and too recently, by violence, senseless cruelty, and suffering.  We long to be at a wedding feast, hearing of that which and those whom God has joined together, but all too often in the events of this world it feels as though we’re at a funeral vigil, bearing witness with tearful eyes to that which we have put asunder, bitterly.

We’re not alone in these conflicts and, sadly, the brokenness of creation has all too often pitted real darkness against any hope of the Light of this world.  This was true for Phillips Brooks and the nation that mourned their President.  In fact, his sermon about Lincoln went the nineteenth century version of “viral” and led to even greater popularity and fame for the young preacher.  But his heart was heavy, very heavy, along with countless of his countrymen who experienced the destruction and brutal violence of the American Civil War, witnessing how it literally tore apart communities and families, culminating in the death of their President.  Not long after his famous sermon about Lincoln, Brooks left on a one-year sabbatical, seeking peace and some measure of healing.

In December 1865, Brooks travelled to Jerusalem, and ventured on Christmas Eve to Bethlehem.  In a letter home to his father, he wrote that “after an early dinner, [we] took our horses and rode to Bethlehem. It was only about two hours when we came to the town, situated on an eastern ridge of a range of hills, surrounded by its terraced gardens.”  “It is a good-looking town,” he wrote.  “Before dark, we rode out of town to the field where they say the shepherds saw the star. … Somewhere in those fields we rode through the shepherds must have been, and in the same fields the story of Ruth and Boaz must belong. As we passed,” he wrote, “shepherds were still ‘keeping watch over their flocks,’ leading them home to fold. We returned and waited for the service. The most interesting part was the crowd of pilgrims, with their simple faith and eagerness to share in the ceremonial. We went to bed very tired.”

In another letter to the Sunday school at his Philadelphia parish, he wrote about the feeling, the peace, the renewal he experienced “when I was standing in the old church at Bethlehem, close to the spot where Jesus was born, when the whole church was ringing hour after hour with the splendid hymns of praise to God.”  That time in Bethlehem, especially, was a healing experience for Brooks, and three years later the memory was still, as he wrote, “singing in my soul.” Singing so much that, in the fall of 1868, Phillips Brooks put pen to paper and wrote a poem, which his organist set to a tune in time for their Christmas service that year, and which we now know as the notable Christmas carol “O Little town of Bethlehem.”

Oddly (and not without controversy in its own time) “O Little Town of Bethlehem” is not a carol to God but a song sung to a city – a humble, insignificant-if-not-for-one-event Judean hill town.  Tonight and in Phillips Brooks own time, Bethlehem is also a city which knows violence, hatred, and strife: the poem mentions in its first stanza the town’s “dark streets”, but even amidst that brokenness shines “the everlasting light / the hopes and fears of all the years” which, profoundly, “are met in thee tonight.”

The poem widens its gaze and tells a larger, more universal story.  The stars and galaxies, the universe’s created order itself, in the second stanza, coalesce “to proclaim the holy birth” – “and praises sing to God the King / and peace to men on earth.”  Peace, that which Phillips Brooks went around the world in search of.  Peace, that which Christians proclaim and seek on Christmas.

Know this, then: The peace you seek is real; the peace, which scripture says, passes all understanding; the peace which Christ himself breathed on his disciples, not some passing relief, not a pain reliever, but God’s own: “My peace I give you, my own peace I leave with you,” Jesus said.  The peace you seek is established upon the truth, in Christmas, that the creation is not marred, not permanently at least, by our brokenness.  Like a resurrection story in itself, these places – Bethlehem or Jerusalem; Civil War battlefields or Ford’s Theatre; Newtown, CT, among too many others – do not bear for ever the mark of the slain, do not encase the suffering of this cruel world.  No, the prayers we lift up are still true – that God would “cast out our sin and enter in,” that God, Emmanuel, will “be born in us, come to us, abide with us.”

And yet I’d be remiss if I didn’t share with you one other truth about God’s peace.  So know this, too: Hard times will come, and come again, and that’s why we return, week after week.  The life of Christian faith is not an elixir from the hurt of this world.  Another hymn kept creeping into my heart as I was pondering these words for tonight, a hymn about Jesus’ disciples.  It ends with a particularly haunting line: “The peace of God, it is no peace, but strife closed in the sod.”  I won’t pretend to know what that means – strife closed in the sod – but I know that it’s a true sentiment that peace, true peace, doesn’t mean the end of strife but, rather, a different way of relating to it.  That’s why we keep coming back, week after week.  I’m reminded that Gandhi once said, “I believe in peace, but I do not want the peace that you find in stone; I do not want the peace that you find in the grave.  I want the peace which you find embedded in the human breast, which is exposed to the arrows of the whole world, but which is protected from harm by the power of the Almighty God.”  Which is a theme the fourteenth century Christian mystic, Julian of Norwich, also expressed with her words: “I never said that you would not be tempest tossed, work-weary or discomforted, only that you shall not be overcome.”

The end of the story is not relief, then, but peace, and peace built by God who is redeeming and renewing and loving and rebuilding this world, brick by brick, community by community, heart by heart.  The end of the story, then, is that love wins, that “the hopes and fears of all the years are met” … not in a city faraway, not in a distant time, not in a bygone era, but in you:  “born in us, come to us, abide with us, our Lord, Emmanuel.”  Merry Christmas.

BELIEVING THINGS, PUBLICLY

I’m tired of political partisanship and really sick and tired of the way the nasty game called politics has taken over our discourse today.  Military deployed and foreign service workers are facing real-life terror and we talk, at home, about how those situations will impact the presidential election!  Worse still, it’s infecting our communities.  If it’s buzzing in St. Mary’s County (population: 100,000+), it’s making it to the grassroots.  And, these days, the roots are pretty toxic.  That’s why I’m putting together an autumn adult formation series having to do with faith and public life.  I’m still lining up the details and inviting local elected officials and I don’t yet have a compelling title, but that’s not the most pressing thing.  It’s the focus that matters.

Some Vestry leaders helped me think about this the other day.  Initial reactions ranged from fear (“You’re going to invite them?”) to doubt (“You’re going to ask an elected official to not talk about himself?”) to half-hearted blessing (“Good luck!”)  Over the course of our conversation, however, they helped reaffirm my motivation.  For Christians, it’s not about the what.  It’s about the why.

Plain and simple: it’s not about the election.  It’s about the outcome.  Whether we come out of this election with any chance at healing depends on the depth of conversation we have now — whether we learn to give thanks to God for the blessings of this nation and, yes, the unique blessings of a cacophonous democracy; whether we also learn to love those who think differently than we do.  The church, the Body of Christ, has a very profound stake in that.  In fact, the faith-based community might be the only community today who has any stake in moving people beyond partisanship to places of genuine healing.

Each session will be a conversation with a local public figure — an elected official or, in some cases, persons seeking election.  We’ll form community in ways only the Body of Christ can: mingle together, pray together, speak and listen openly, and ask God’s blessing on our nation and one another.  The series will conclude with an Election Day Thanksgiving Service, held on the evening of Tuesday, Nov. 6 in which we gather for worship and song and praise.  We’ll thank God for this country, thank God for the blessings of democracy, thank God for those persons who will be elected by the people, and thank God for those persons who stood faithfully for election and did not receive the majority.

In so doing, what if we noticed that public policy is actually a worthwhile discourse, but politics helps no one?  What if people of faith entered the fray, not to win one side of an argument, but to “chill out” and sanctify the conversation by our presence and prayerfulness, to proclaim our faith in God’s Kingdom, and to affirm that there are lots of folks, like us, who care more about the healing of our communities and the common good than about winning points or polls?

A Vestry member said that it’s impossible to separate a politician from their politics.  What if people said that about Christians?  What if we wore our faith so transparently that every breath we make and every action we take bespeaks Jesus, the Son of God, whom the powers of this world crucified but, in the majesty of God, rose and redeemed the entire world?  I get the internal resistance.  Personally, I don’t like being lumped in “conservative” or “liberal” categories — no thanks to some of the loudest Christian voices who so quickly line up with divisive, secular causes.  I get it.  So where’s the Christian voice who humbly asserts faith in another Kingdom, namely God’s, and, in turn, focuses on healing the common good, not winners or losers in electoral politics?  In Christ, we transcend political categories. What if we, disciples of Christ, came to believe that God cares so much about the common good and health of our local communities that whenever our elected officials gather to debate a matter of policy they ask themselves, “I wonder what the Christians would say, whether we’ve listened to the people and are offering a message that will heal, not divide?”

At the end of the conversation with St. George’s Vestry, their initially half-hearted blessing turned into a full-on endorsement.  “Do it, Greg,” they said.  Honestly, their doubts may have remained.  To be even more honest, some of mine do, too.  I don’t know if we can heal these pointed divisions and I don’t know if we’ll be able to sanctify the conversation in the eyes of God.  But I know someone should, and I believe our faith gives us the tools to do it, and I pray that we have God’s grace to do it well.

PUTTING BACK TOGETHER A ONCE-SHATTERED WORLD

Take apart the word ‘remember’ and it literally means to put back together, to re – member.  It implies that something is broken.  It carries with it associations of gentleness, tenderness; that which was once destroyed is re – assembled, re – membered.

            Mark spends nearly 400 of the 11,000 words in his terse gospel describing the violent death of John the baptizer.  The events are eerily similar to Jesus’: both are executed by officers of the state who would like to let them live; both are killed for reasons which are downright silly and, for that reason, all the more awful; both are brutally murdered because of the assaults of mad people.  Also, in both stories, the followers do not retaliate; instead, they take the bodies, wrap them in cloths, and lay them in a proper burial.  The followers re – member their beloved leader – returning love for love once shown, and demonstrating to the authorities through acts of gentleness that those in power have already brought judgment upon themselves. 

            The similarity also carried into the lives of those first century Christians who received this story called ‘good news.’  They, too, were suffering their own passion-tides simply because they practiced unconditional communitarian love, worshipped a universal God, and followed the Way of Jesus.  They, too, are victims of violent people who exact dehumanizing torture and death in a sick, mad world.  You know very well what it means to live – and strive to live well and whole – in a violent world run by deranged people.

            We cannot control this world, or stop violence.  We re – member, the gospel tells us, so the better angels of our nature will grow.  We re – member, as well, so the nastier demons of our nature will not take root, lest we, too, become yet another fatality to the starving madness of this broken and sinful world.  That is why we remember.

            I’ve had two experiences which remind me of this truth. 

MATTHEW SHEPARD
Dec. 1, 1976 – Oct. 12, 1998

            In 2002, I helped lead a group of high school Episcopalians to the Episcopal Youth Event (EYE), held that summer at the University of Wyoming in Laramie, Wyoming.  Four years earlier, Matthew Shephard, a young gay student at the university, was tortured and murdered by two local Laramie men.  They robbed, pistol-whipped and tortured Matthew, tying his near-lifeless body to a fence in a remote field.  A cyclist found his blood-soaked body 18 hours later, thinking at first it was a scarecrow tied to the fence.  This horrifying case brought national and international attention to hate crimes, and continues to be a sobering example of the violence we can do to one another.

            There is no memorial in Laramie to Matthew Shepard.  In town, one afternoon, one of those with us got a cold shoulder when she asked a local man where the farm was where Matthew lay dying.  I’ve learned that that struggle is ongoing: yes, in 1998, community leaders expressed appropriate sadness and disgust about the murder, but the town has resisted establishing a memorial.  Local residents successfully petitioned the city to change the street names leading to the field where Matthew was beaten, hoping that people would go away.  The summer I was there, a local man pointed out to us the general area of the field.  All I remember seeing was a long stretch of fields and a fence line in the vast distance.  Laramie did not feel, to me, like a healed place.  Our nation, likewise, isn’t healed, and I honestly fear that vicious hate crimes against gay and lesbian people will be met, in some cases, with some people, by indifference, ignorance or, worse, endorsement and support.

            How have we re – membered Matthew Shepard?  How have we, as a people, looked upon something that is truly horrible and taken the body down from that fence, wrapped it in love, and shown to a world which feeds on violence that, according to our good news, love defeats hatred, gentleness trumps ignorance, and care establishes justice?  The answer, in this case, is we have not.

            My second experience was a time in which I saw my father cry.  When I was 15 years old, I came out East for a family wedding.  The day after the wedding, we visited some of the memorials in Washington, DC, in particular the Vietnam Memorial.  At the deepest part of the wall, I was next to my father, running my hand over some of the names, thinking about who they were, when I turned to continue down the line and saw tears on his face.  It is a powerful memorial.  It was good for my dad to cry, as countless others have at that wall, because these were his friends and promising young men from his generation.  I’ll bet they were also tears of exhaustion, of being given the opportunity at long last to grieve a particularly painful moment in his adult formation, for at the very moment he was becoming an adult – getting a job, getting married, starting a family – this country was being torn apart, relationships chosen or broken on the basis of ideological stances, a people ripped apart from its insides.  There has been much healing since the Vietnam Conflict, evidenced by the ways in which we unambiguously support our troops in the current conflicts.  I would suspect that that wall has had a lot to do with that healing.

            Terrible events happen in the world, and we are powerless over systemic hatred, bigotry, and injustice.  But we are not powerless over the ways in which we respond, and in that response lies the only hope of an emergent, profound Kingdom that is not of this world but is, rather, God’s.  And that is why we remember.  That is why we take the body that was abused, pistol-whipped, beheaded, suffocated on a cross, or broken by words or threats and wrap it gently and lay it in a place we will remember and visit again, even if it is a memory we don’t like to face, especially because it is.

            On a night seething with violence, He did it himself, after all – washing feet, embodying servanthood, expressing kindness, demonstrating love, taking bread, pouring wine and saying “Do this in remembrance of me.”  Put back together that which was broken, or soon will be, and He will be there, mending those once-shattered shards, healing the world from within.

……….

Taken from a sermon preached at St. George’s Episcopal Church on Sunday, 15 July 2012.  The full text of the sermon can be downloaded here.