Today, in God’s Lavish Mercy, we receive a perfect encouragement from Isaiah:
Walter Brueggemann calls Isaiah 65 “a glorious artistic achievement”. Indeed, these images confirm his statement:
a new heavens and a new earth;
constant rejoicing and happiness
people will be a delight
no weeping or crying;
long life for all
everyone with a home
enough for all to eat
As we pray with this passage today, we may experience a longing for a return to our beautiful, safe world – a world before pandemic, a world before the specter of WW III. In today’s violent and besieged environment, we all pray from a place of anxiety, loss, constraint, or some degree of suffering.
Isaiah’s community prayed from the same place. All the beautiful images were a promise not yet realized. The prophetic poetry of Isaiah is a call to courageous hope, not a description of current circumstances.
Faith invites us, even as we experience a bittersweet longing, to trust that God is with us, teaching us and leading us deeper into the Divine Understanding. Even as circumstances turn our world upside down, God will guide the falling pieces to a blessed place if we commit to find God in the tumbling.
I don’t think many of us would deny that the world has needed fixing for a long, long time. The systems we have built leave many in deficit throughout the world, and we have failed to address the wound.
War, pandemic, forced migration of the poor, climate catastrophe all have laid that failure bare.
As we pray for resolutions to these sufferings, may we be opened to an irrevocable awareness of our common humanity and responsibility for one another.
Only by such an outcome will we move closer to Isaiah’s peaceful Kingdom. Only by our courage to embrace it, can God fulfill the Promise in us.
Poetry: by Emily Dickinson
I many times thought Peace had come When Peace was far away — As Wrecked Men — deem they sight the Land — At Centre of the Sea —
And struggle slacker — but to prove As hopelessly as I — How many the fictitious Shores — Before the Harbor lie —
Today, in God’s Lavish Mercy, we are encouraged to pray. Hosea tells us:
Come, let us return to the LORD, it is he who has rent, but he will heal us; … the LORD will come to us like the rain, like spring rain that waters the earth.
Let the image of that truth sink into your parched spirit.
Our Gospel leads us to pray humbly:
But the tax collector stood off at a distance and would not even raise his eyes to heaven but beat his breast and prayed, ‘O God, be merciful to me a sinner.’
As we pray humbly today, let us ask for God’s refreshment for all our sisters and brothers across the earth. In good times and in trials, let us always praise God.
I would like to share one of my own poems with you today, as we kneel before God with all struggling Creation begging God for humanity to be washed in Mercy.
All Creation kneels, a Single Being, to praise God.
From its immense heart, it sings myriad songs at once, Morning and Evensong, Praise and Dirge, Alas and Alleluia, intermingled
It sings even over its own scars, where the chasms cry out for balm. It sings both the remembrance and the hope of blessing. It sings the endurance of faith and the confidence of love.
In roar and silence, darkness and light, Creation kneels, a Single Being, to praise God.
Music: Total Praise sung by the Brooklyn Tabernacle Choir. Just watching these faith-filled people lifts my heart and gives me hope. I trust it will do the same for you, dear friends as we pray for one another.
Today, in God’s Lavish Mercy, our readings are about types of citizenship, that condition of knowing we are fully and irrevocably home.
In Genesis, Abraham is given a land for himself and his descendants as a sign of God’s abiding Presence.
“I am the LORD who brought you from Ur of the Chaldeans to give you this land as a possession.”
In Philippians, Paul tells us that, truly, “our citizenship is in heaven”.
But our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we also await a savior, the Lord Jesus Christ.
In Luke, the transfigured Jesus shows us what that heavenly reality will be like. It is a kind of glorious belonging that Peter wants to hold on to … to capture in a tent.
Jesus took Peter, John, and James and went up the mountain to pray. While he was praying his face changed in appearance and his clothing became dazzling white.
But the Creator makes it clear this dwelling and citizenship exists only in the heart of Christ where we are called to listen and live our lives.
While Peter was still speaking, a cloud came and cast a shadow over them, and they became frightened when they entered the cloud. Then from the cloud came a voice that said, “This is my chosen Son; listen to him.”
These readings confirm that, in God, we are a people not bound by borders, ethnicities, religious cult, or any other human categorization.
Every human being belongs to God and is called to live in the fullness of that Creation. This is our shared Divine citizenship demanding a reverent mutuality for one another’s lives.
Think about that in contrast to the incomprehensible outrage of Putin’s unprovoked war against the Ukrainian people. Think about it relative to the many armed conflicts in Africa, Asia and Latin and South America.
Think of our Oneness in God compared to talk of border walls, ethnic and religious bans, white supremacy, anti-semitism, islamophobia and all the other manufactured ways we try to isolate people from this Divine citizenship which makes us brothers and sisters in God.
On this Sunday when our readings remind us of where and to whom each of our hearts belongs, let us pray for our world – for those suffering from war and isolation, and for the unfortunate lost souls executing that suffering. In differing ways, each of them, and we, need continuing redemption.
Poetry: The Man He Killed – Thomas Hardy
Had he and I but met By some old ancient inn, We should have sat us down to wet Right many a nipperkin!
But ranged as infantry, And staring face to face, I shot at him as he at me, And killed him in his place.
I shot him dead because – Because he was my for, Just so: my foe of course he was; That’s clear enough; although
He thought he’d ‘list, perhaps, Off-hand like – just as I – Was out of work — had sold his traps — No other reason why.
Yes; quaint and curious war is! You shoot a fellow down You’d treat if met where any bar is, Or help to half-a-crown.
Today, in Mercy, our readings could be so reassuring about the power of our prayer, except …..
How often have you prayed for something that you didn’t get?
In our reading from the Book of Esther, Esther certainly puts everything she has into her prayer for deliverance:
She lay prostrate upon the ground, together with her handmaids, from morning until evening, and said: “God of Abraham, God of Isaac, and God of Jacob, blessed are you. Help me, who am alone and have no help but you, for I am taking my life in my hand.
The passage, in isolation from the rest of the Book, might lead us to conclude that Esther’s prayer is simply about her asking for, and receiving, what she wants from God. It’s about much more.
Esther, like Christ, is in a position to save her people. She must risk her life to do so. She is praying for the courage to do God’s will, to look past her own comfort and become an agent of grace in her circumstances.
Now that’s some kind of prayer!
Prayer can be like looking in a mirror. All we see reflected back is our own need and desire. We don’t pray honestly and openly enough to let God open a door in the mirror – a door into God’s own will and hope for us.
That’s the door Jesus is talking about in today’s Gospel.
What we ASK is not just for something we want, but rather to know God’s heart.
What we SEEK is not our own satisfaction, but the grace to embrace God’s mysterious energy in our lives no matter how it comes to us.
What we KNOCK for and desire to be opened to us is deeper love and fuller relationship with our loving God.
Sometimes, the problem with prayer is that we think it’s like asking our rich uncle for a permanent loan. It’s only when we comprehend that prayer is a relationship that the RECEIVE, FIND, and OPENED parts become real for us.
Poetry: Morning Prayer – Renee Yann, RSM
I walk the earth, soft from yesterday’s long rain. Mists ascend like incense under my indulgent footfalls. Birdsongs thin themselves between the early light; chanting, contrapuntal, in the well-laved trees.
Nothing grey is left now in the wide sky. Rinsed in light it spreads to dry in sere, blue wind.
Momentarily, earth is wholly God’s; deep, true colors fall to it, rich, unshadowed. Your Word, Creator, WaterGod, has penetrated. It returns to You in crystal images from a finally uncomplicated world.
As if within a lucent globe I hold You still, in perfect, silent love, clear, inexplicable like sunlit rain.
Music: two offerings today. One is old-time revival. The other is classic beauty. Enjoy.
Prayer Is the Key to Heaven – Alan Brewster
Music: Overture from Esther – George Frideric Handel
Today, in God’s Lavish Mercy, we are invited to be like God:
The LORD said to Moses, “Speak to the whole assembly of the children of Israel and tell them: Be holy, for I, the LORD, your God, am holy.
Our first reading goes on to tell us how to be a decent person.
Don’t steal, lie, or cheat Pay just wages Respect and help those physically burdened Be impartial and just Defend life Don’t slander, hate, take revenge, or hold a grudge
Leviticus, after a long list of practical examples, sums it up:
You shall love your neighbor as yourself. I am the LORD.
Our Gospel tells us what happens when we make the choice to take the Old Testament advice — or not.
We are all familiar with the parable of the sheep and the goats. And we all hope our scorecard gets us into the right herd “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him …”
In this parable, Jesus puts the advice of Leviticus into practical form for his followers. But he adds one dynamic element that not only invites but impels our wholehearted response:
Amen, I say to you, what you did not do for one of these least ones, you did not do for me.
Leviticus invites us to become holy as God is holy. But Jesus reveals the secret that this Holy God lives in the poor, hungry, homeless, imprisoned and sick. By embracing these most beloved of God, we find the path to holiness.
Poetry: When Did I See You – Renee Yann, RSM
When Did I See You … (Woman Who Is Homeless)
In the bitter rain of February I sat inside a sunlit room, and offered You warm prayer.
Then, she passed outside my window dressed too lightly for the wind, steadied on a cane, though she was young.
She seemed searching for a comfort, unavailable and undefined. The wound of that impossibility
fell over her the way it falls on every tender thing that cries but is not gathered to a caring breast.
Suddenly she was a single anguished seed of You, fallen into all created things.
Gathering my fallen prayer, I wear the thought of her like cracked earth wears fresh rain.
I’ve misconstrued You, Holy One, to whom I spread my heart
as if it were a yearning field… Holy One, already ripe within her barest, leanest yearning.
Today, in God’s Lavish Mercy, our readings prime us for the coming of Lent. Lent is all about the transformation of our hearts within of the Passion, Death, and Resurrection of Jesus.
But before we are ready for such transformation, we must be totally aware of ourselves and open to God’s Presence in our lives.
Our readings call us to a deep look at our spiritual integrity as it is revealed in our words and actions. The image of a good tree, bearing fruit, suffuses all our scriptures today.
What about the integrity of our words:
The fruit of a tree shows the care it has had; so too does one’s speech disclose the bent of one’s mind. Praise no one before he speaks, for it is then that people are tested.
What about the integrity of our faith:
The just one shall flourish like the palm tree, like a cedar of Lebanon shall he grow. They that are planted in the house of the LORD shall flourish in the courts of our God.
Psalm 92: 13-14
What about the perseverance of our faithful labor:
Be firm, steadfast, always fully devoted to the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.
1 Corinthians 92:15-16
What about our actions – the fruit we bear to the world:
A good tree does not bear rotten fruit, nor does a rotten tree bear good fruit. For every tree is known by its own fruit. For people do not pick figs from thornbushes, nor do they gather grapes from brambles. A good person out of the store of goodness in his heart produces good, but an evil person out of a store of evil produces evil; for from the fullness of the heart the mouth speaks.
Let’s set our sights on the beginning of Lent which is now on the near horizon. How do we want to begin the transformative journey offered us once again in this magnificent liturgical cycle? Now is the time to prepare.
Poetry: Birches BY ROBERT FROST
When I see birches bend to left and right
Across the lines of straighter darker trees,
I like to think some boy’s been swinging them.
But swinging doesn’t bend them down to stay
As ice-storms do. Often you must have seen them
Loaded with ice a sunny winter morning
After a rain. They click upon themselves
As the breeze rises, and turn many-colored
As the stir cracks and crazes their enamel.
Soon the sun’s warmth makes them shed crystal shells
Shattering and avalanching on the snow-crust—
Such heaps of broken glass to sweep away
You'd think the inner dome of heaven had fallen.
They are dragged to the withered bracken by the load,
And they seem not to break; though once they are bowed
So low for long, they never right themselves:
You may see their trunks arching in the woods
Years afterwards, trailing their leaves on the ground
Like girls on hands and knees that throw their hair
Before them over their heads to dry in the sun.
But I was going to say when Truth broke in
With all her matter-of-fact about the ice-storm
I should prefer to have some boy bend them
As he went out and in to fetch the cows—
Some boy too far from town to learn baseball,
Whose only play was what he found himself,
Summer or winter, and could play alone.
One by one he subdued his father's trees
By riding them down over and over again
Until he took the stiffness out of them,
And not one but hung limp, not one was left
For him to conquer. He learned all there was
To learn about not launching out too soon
And so not carrying the tree away
Clear to the ground. He always kept his poise
To the top branches, climbing carefully
With the same pains you use to fill a cup
Up to the brim, and even above the brim.
Then he flung outward, feet first, with a swish,
Kicking his way down through the air to the ground.
So was I once myself a swinger of birches.
And so I dream of going back to be.
It’s when I’m weary of considerations,
And life is too much like a pathless wood
Where your face burns and tickles with the cobwebs
Broken across it, and one eye is weeping
From a twig’s having lashed across it open.
I'd like to get away from earth awhile
And then come back to it and begin over.
May no fate willfully misunderstand me
And half grant what I wish and snatch me away
Not to return. Earth’s the right place for love:
I don’t know where it's likely to go better.
I'd like to go by climbing a birch tree,
And climb black branches up a snow-white trunk
Toward heaven, till the tree could bear no more,
But dipped its top and set me down again.
That would be good both going and coming back.
One could do worse than be a swinger of birches.
Today, in God’s Lavish Mercy, our readings are around the theme of our spiritual senses.
James tells us to listen, look, see, and act on the Word planted within our hearts. Once again, he gives us great images to help our understanding.
For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who looks at his own face in a mirror. He sees himself, then goes off and promptly forgets what he looked like.
If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, his religion is vain.
James 1: 26
In our Gospel, once again our dear, earthy Jesus heals someone in a deeply human way. Jesus takes the blind man aside, holding his hand to lead him. As he did in a passage recently, Jesus spits on his fingers and massages the blind man’s eyes.
The man tries to work with Jesus, exclaiming that he sees “people like trees walking”.
I’ve always loved that line because it makes me feel like I’m right there, in that little dusty village of Bethsaida, listening like the rest of the stunned crowd to the man’s amazement!
As we pray this morning, we might wonder what Jesus said back to that overwhelmed man as they sat together, helping him to learn how to see. What might Jesus say to us as he lifts one of our many blindnesses from our hearts?
Prose: from Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard
(This passage is from one of my all-time favorite books written by Annie Dillard whom I think of as the “Mary Oliver” of prose. Here’s the way wikipedia describes the book:)
Pilgrim at Tinker Creek is a 1974 nonfiction narrative book by American author Annie Dillard. Told from a first-person point of view, the book details an unnamed narrator's explorations near her home, and various contemplations on nature and life. The title refers to Tinker Creek, which is outside Roanoke in Virginia's Blue Ridge Mountains. Dillard began writing Pilgrim in the spring of 1973, using her personal journals as inspiration. Separated into four sections that signify each of the seasons, the narrative takes place over the period of one year.
The book records the narrator's thoughts on solitude, writing, and religion, as well as scientific observations on the flora and fauna she encounters. Touching upon themes of faith, nature, and awareness, Pilgrim is also noted for its study of theodicy and the inherent cruelty of the natural world. The author has described it as a "book of theology", and she rejects the label of nature writer.
I think this is a great book to pick up at the beginning of any season of nature or life. The excerpt I chose for today, in honor of the Gospel, is from a chapter entitled ” Seeing”:
A fog that won’t burn away drifts and flows across my field of vision. When you see fog move against a backdrop of deep pines, you don’t see the fog itself, but streaks of clearness floating across the air in dark shreds. So I see only tatters of clearness through a pervading obscurity. I can’t distinguish the fog from the overcast sky; I can’t be sure if the light is direct or reflected. Everywhere darkness and the presence of the unseen appalls. We estimate now that only one atom dances alone in every cubic meter of intergalactic space. I blink and squint. What planet or power yanks Halley’s Comet out of orbit? We haven’t seen that force yet; it’s a question of distance, density, and the pallor of reflected light. We rock, cradled in the swaddling band of darkness. Even the simple darkness of night whispers suggestions to the mind.
The secret of seeing is, then, the pearl of great price. If I thought he could teach me to find it and keep it forever I would stagger barefoot across and hundred deserts after any lunatic at all. But although the pearl may be found, it may not be sought. The literature of illumination reveals this above all: although it comes to those who wait for it, it is always, even to the most practiced and adept, a gift and a total surprise. I return from one walk knowing where the killdeer nests in the field by the creek and the hour the laurel blooms. I return from the same walk a day later scarcely knowing my own name. Litanies hum in my ears; my tongue flaps in my mouth Ailinon, alleluia! I cannot cause light; the most I can do is try to put myself in the path of its beam. It is possible, in deep space, to sail on solar wind. Light, be it particle or wave, has force: you rig a giant sail and go. The secret of seeing is to sail on solar wind. Hone and spread your spirit till you yourself are a sail, whetted, translucent, broadside to the merest puff.
Today, in God’s Lavish Mercy, we celebrate the Baptism of Jesus, that moment in time when Christ entered into his ministry, announced by the thundering voice of Divine Infinity.
Maybe you’re not like me in this, but I must confess to sometimes letting the scriptures become very ordinary and pedantic. These passages have been read at me in church, sometimes well, often poorly, for seven decades. They have been plastered on billboards, bumper stickers and Church marquees for just as long. All that mundane exposure has demystified some of the most amazing words ever written.
But just think about what today’s Gospel describes.
Think about the greatest prophet of both the Old and New Testament standing waist-deep in the Jordan, eyes locked on Christ.
Think about Jesus, perfectly communed with the Father, walking slowly past the bird-filled trees and bushes to a moment that had been waiting for Him since all eternity. Did not those works of the Creator’s hands sing in worship as he passed?
Think about the pulsing sky already filled with the Creator’s waiting breath, ready to burst with the proclamation of the Son – this Son who said “Yes” to the greatest act of love in history!
For a few moments this morning, let yourself be there. Be filled with nature’s orchestra. Be filled with the pulsing colors of God’s astonishing revelation. Be filled with the Baptist’s profound reverence. Be filled with Christ’s omnipotent freedom and joy.
Let us enter with gratitude and celebration into the Baptism of Jesus!
Poetry: Jesus’ Baptism – Malcolm Guite
Beginning here we glimpse the Three-in-one; The river runs, the clouds are torn apart, The Father speaks, the Spirit and the Son Reveal to us the single loving heart That beats behind the being of all things And calls and keeps and kindles us to light. The dove descends, the spirit soars and sings ‘You are belovèd, you are my delight!’
In that quick light and life, as water spills And streams around the Man like quickening rain, The voice that made the universe reveals The God in Man who makes it new again. He calls us too, to step into that river To die and rise and live and love forever.
Music: Jesus the Lord – Roc O’Connor
Refrain: Jesus, Jesus Let all creation bend the knee to the Lord.
In Him we live, we move and have our being; In Him the Christ, In Him the King! Jesus the Lord.
Though Son, He did not cling to Godliness, But emptied Himself, became a slave! Jesus the Lord.
He lived obediently His Father’s will Accepting His death, death on a cross! Jesus the Lord!