About Sarah Bryan Miller

About Sarah Bryan Miller Bryan is a singer, a writer, a licensed lay preacher in the Episcopal Diocese of Missouri, and the mother of two.

The Word became flesh

PetrusPictaviensis_CottonFaustinaBVII-folio42v_ScutumFidei_early13thcHappy Third Day of Christmas!

On Christmas Eve, we heard the story of God’s plan for our salvation in the simple story of one woman, one man, one infant: the story of a newborn babe laid in a manger, warmed by the breath of animals in a stable, because there was no room at the inn.

We heard Luke’s timeless narrative of shepherds and angels, of the star blazing as a beacon to the world. We heard God’s message of the birth of a savior, given through the angels and delivered to a group of society’s outcasts, in a miracle that telegraphed the direction of Jesus’s coming ministry to the poor and despised peoples of the world.

In its universal humanity, the Christmas story is one that never fails to touch the heart, whether it’s played out by children in the parish Christmas pageant or read silently at home. In a sense, in zeroing in on that one family, that one baby, and the events of that one moment in time, it’s the micro version of the history of Christ’s coming.

In this morning’s reading from the Gospel of John, we heard the macro version of that same message. John speaks in language that does not lend itself to pageants, in language that reaches the head before the heart. But this one brief and poetic passage is packed with essential points that help to define our Christian faith.

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” On Christmas night, the angels announced Jesus as Savior and Messiah. Now we see him revealed as something even greater: as God, present from the beginning of time, in on the Creation, with all that that implies.

“Logos,” translated into English as “Word,” has many meanings in Greek. It can mean “an opinion,” or “to reason,” or “a plea,” as well as “speech” or “word.”

It has a long history and evolution in Greek philosophy. The Stoic philosophers of the third century BC used “Logos” to describe an aspect of the divine. Philo, a Jewish philosopher born about 20 years before Jesus in the Egyptian city of Alexandria, integrated that with the concept of Wisdom in the Hebrew scriptures.

John digested Philo’s work and adapted it to his gospel. The concept of Jesus as the Word of God, so imperative in our Christian tradition, is introduced here.

That’s the first big point. The second is like unto it: “What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.”

“Life,” for John, means “eternal life,” a life beyond death. The presence of light is an essential part of God, from the oldest parts of the Hebrew Bible onward. The importance of that symbolism was particularly pronounced in that world, where light was scarce after the sun set. Without light, we cannot see; we blunder in the darkness, threatened by all the enemies that dwell there. But with the light provided by the Word, the spiritual darkness is driven away, and everything becomes visible.

But – next big point – not everyone recognized the light for what it was. John the Baptist, whom some at the time of Jesus believed was the Messiah, went ahead to prepare the way for the Word.

Those who do recognize the light of Jesus have the power to become God’s children, filled with God’s grace. That’s important, because, as the reading from Galatians explains, those who have accepted Christ are freed from the burden of the Law of Moses.

The Law started out as a commonsense guide to living and to honoring God, and grew from there; the consensus among Jewish scholars is that there are a total of 613 commandments in the Hebrew Bible. That’s far more than most people can remember, let alone observe. Jesus cut through the thicket to get back to basics: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your mind and all your strength, and you shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

John’s language takes a little unpacking, but it provides the ideal balance to the simplicity of Luke’s narrative. It provides a key to understanding the meaning of the story of the birth in the stable.

The biggest of all the points in this reading is God’s love for us. Everything else just tells us how that love is manifested.

God is too immense for the human mind to understand. But because God loves us, “The Word became flesh and lived among us,” born as one of us, in a smelly barn, a human being with human challenges. Because God loves us, Jesus stepped out of the security of a quiet life into the spotlight, preaching and teaching and healing, setting himself on the road to Calvary.

Because God loves us, we can experience the grace of God. Because God loves us, Jesus brought us the gift of eternal life, the gift of becoming God’s children. There is no greater gift than that.

Merry Christmas!

– Sarah Bryan Miller

How should Christians fight?

FearCharlesLeBrun1760_wikiSERMON NOTES, PENTECOST 11 (Proper 14, preached August 9, 2015, at Church of the Good Shepherd, Town & Country, Missouri)

Family fights are often the ugliest. They can get nasty fast, and they’re very often over the smallest things. Someone takes offense at a remark; two people disagree over the right way to do things. Grudges can be held for years. When things get really bad, one branch may stop communicating with another for generations.

That’s not just true in families. It can be true in communities. It can be true in the Church. Some of the bitterest fights are over the best ways to honor God.

As Christians, we often think that we shouldn’t argue among ourselves. We shouldn’t fight. We shouldn’t bicker. We tend to think that that we should, instead, always get along, because isn’t that what Jesus expects of us?

The problem is that we’re human, and fighting amongst ourselves is a part of the human condition. When it comes to church matters, we’re going to disagree over the essentials of theology, and we’re going to disagree over how to do coffee hour, and we’re going to disagree over everything in between – and there’s a lot of in between. That’s true at the parish level, and it’s true of the national and international Church.

When these fights blow up and go public, it’s embarrassing to all of us. Non-Christians look on our quarrels as signs of hypocrisy: “See how these Christians love one another.”

We’ve been fighting over a lot of things in recent years. When I was young, I knew people who left the Episcopal Church over changes in language in the liturgy. Then there were people who left over changes in the role of women in the church. More recently, people have left over the inclusion of gay and lesbian people in the full life of the church.

The fights have been ugly, with plenty of nastiness on both sides, with little sign of the love we are commanded to have for one another, with little evidence of attempts to understand where our opponents are coming from. It echoes our country’s unfortunate political dialogue today. But as Christians, we are supposed to be better than that.

There have been conservatives who accused liberals of apostasy, and liberals who accused conservatives of bigotry. There was the bishop who told conservatives, from the pulpit, “This isn’t your church any more,” and to leave. There have been lawsuits, from all angles. None of it has enhanced how those outside the church view us. None of it has demonstrated the love of Christ.

It’s not a recent problem. It goes all the way back to the foundation of the Church. You had the party that believed that Gentile Christians should first convert to Judaism, complete with circumcision, and the party that wanted to welcome all regardless. (Fortunately for us, Paul won that one.)

From reading the epistles, we know that disagreement was rife in the early Church. That’s why, in today’s reading, the author of Ephesians tells us how Christians ought to fight.
It’s okay to be angry, he says, but don’t dwell on it. Stick to the facts; don’t exaggerate. Don’t gossip. Work through your anger, and turn it into something useful, something positive. Don’t tear down others; don’t divide. Instead, work to build up the whole community.

“Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander,” he says, “together with all malice, and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you.”

Well, that’s a lot to ask, isn’t it, when our side is clearly right and the other is wrong? How are we supposed to be kind or forgiving to bigots, or to apostates? Isn’t that a sign of weakness?

No, it’s a sign of paying attention to what Jesus has taught us. The gospels are filled with that lesson. How often are we to forgive? Seventy times seven, as often as it takes. Nobody says it’s easy, but loving our neighbor and forgiving wrongs is a basic part of our faith.

“Be imitators of God,” says the author of Ephesians, “as beloved children, and live in love.” We need to rise above the petty stuff, the coffee-hour disagreements, and put them aside. We need to find ways to reconcile the larger issues, or find ways to part in love and understanding, rather than in bitterness.

“Live in love, as Christ loved us.” That’s the takeaway for this reading, and it applies to every area of our lives: in our families, in our workplaces, in the Church, and in the world outside.

Lord, give us loving and understanding hearts, and the grace to get past our anger and bitterness toward one another when we disagree. Help us to live as you have commanded us, and in the spirit in which you yourself lived among us. Amen.

– Sarah Bryan Miller

 

Sermon notes: Seeing things differently

SERMON NOTES, PROPER 6, YEAR B (Preached at St. Peter’s/Ladue, June 14, 2015)

Conrad_von_Soest,_'Brillenapostel'_(1403)_wikiThe way we look at things makes all the difference in the world.

When I was a girl, I never knew what anyone was talking about when they mentioned depth of field, or 3D effects. I swung at balls that seemed to be close, but turned out to be far away, much to the disgust of my teammates. I could see the blackboard, though, and read even tiny print from a distance, so nobody worried about it.

Then, in college, my ophthalmologist discovered the reason for at least some of my athletic failures. We knew that one eye had perfect vision, while the other was extremely near-sighted. He realized that the good eye compensated for the blurry-visioned one. My brain processed only its signals when it came to seeing things from a distance. I had monocular vision, so my brain had no idea of where that ball might be.

When I got my first pair of glasses, I suddenly saw things differently, in ways I had never imagined. The world had more variation, more depth. It didn’t seem flat at a certain distance. Colors were brighter. I could spot birds in trees. I could probably even have caught a ball that was thrown at me, except that by then I instinctively ducked.

It was an epiphany. My point of view had changed.

Paul is talking about spiritual vision and spiritual points of view in today’s lectionary reading. Paul knows something about looking at others, and about changed points of view.

When we first meet Paul, in Chapter 7 of the Acts of the Apostles, he’s named Saul. He’s witnessing the stoning of the deacon Stephen, the first Christian martyr. The others in the mob have placed their coats at his feet while they carry out the execution. Saul saw the new Christians as a threat, and he watched the bloodshed with approval.

Two chapters later, Saul heads to Damascus, “breathing murderous threats against the Lord’s disciples,” on a mission to root them out. Instead, Saul comes to see things differently. His feet are knocked out from under him as a bright light flashes, and a voice asks, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?”

The voice belongs to Jesus, who sends him on into the city, a changed and shaken man. For a three days, Saul can’t see anything, until the Lord sends the reluctant Ananias to lay hands on him and baptize him. Scales fall from Saul’s eyes, and he sees clearly.

Paul, as he comes to be known, clearly knows something about walking by faith, not sight. Seeing doesn’t always tell us the whole truth. Seeing can sometimes mislead us.

Paul is very definite about that, and about what we should be doing in this regard: Christ died for us all, and we are to live in and for him. That means that we are to look at each other as if we were looking through the eyes of Jesus.

I doubt that any of us need to be told what an enormous challenge that is. We are, by definition, not up to Jesus’s standard.

We can aspire to that standard, though. We can make for ourselves another point of view, make for ourselves a pair of Christ-colored glasses. We can try to see the world through his eyes.

I find that the best way to do that is through prayer. There is a well-known saying, attributed to the fifth century bishop Prosper of Aquitaine: “Lex orandi, lex credendi,” which translates, loosely, to “Praying shapes believing.”

This is a principle dear to the hearts of Anglicans, as the late liturgics professor Leonel Mitchell noted in his book, appropriately entitled “Praying Shapes Believing”: Our belief is shaped by our Book of Common Prayer. As we pray, so over time, do we think.

And I think that the present Book of Common Prayer encourages us in doing as Paul tells us, to see each other through Christ’s eyes.

Just for starters, the Baptismal Covenant asks, “Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself? Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?” Say that often enough, and the words and their meaning start to sink in.

In the aftermath of Ferguson, there has been a lot of talk about how we see each other, too often seeing each other as the other. I think there’s a parallel problem: Too often, we don’t see each other at all, at least not as people.

We see the clerk whose line is moving slowly, with us at the back of it; we don’t see the single mother who’s having a hard time today because she was up half the night with a sick child. We see the teenager with attitude and falling-down pants; we don’t see the young man who’s trying to find his place in the world, and to figure out the tools for making it a good place. Sometimes we even see the stranger who’s sitting in our preferred pew, but not the seeker who’s uncertain of her welcome in a new church.

My prayer of the last few years, which I started saying every morning, every night, and every time I climb behind a steering wheel – because I really need it most of all when I’m driving – is “Lord, help me to see your face in all I meet, and to do your work in the world.” I can say that it helps me, although I really have to work at it with a few people.

The point is our point of view, to see each other as Christ would have us see one another, not “from a human point of view,” but as Jesus sees us. When we manage that, everything old does pass away; everything becomes new – sharper, clearer, fresher.

Sermon notes: Expanding the family

Christ_preaching_before_a_crowd._Woodcut._Wellcome_V0034716_wikiSERMON NOTES, PROPER 5, YEAR B (June 7, 2015; preached at Church of the Good Shepherd)

Most of us, from time to time in our childhoods, tried to persuade our parents to let us have or do something because all the other kids had or did it.

Many parents respond to this with, “If all the other kids decided to jump off a cliff, would you jump too?” My father would make me name all of said other kids, who usually turned out to number a minority in the class, and who were not infrequently the same group in any recital of this sort. Then he’d point out how many other children also had mean daddies, and that would be the end of the discussion.

Some parents give in to this form of pressure, whether because of weariness or because they actually believe that it is important to be like all the other kids. One of the more surprising examples of a parent who caves – and I am sure that, in this case, it’s due to weariness with whiny children – is Yahweh, in the reading from 1 Samuel in today’s lectionary.

The Israelites were traditionally ruled by judges, like Deborah and Samson. They decided thorny matters for their people. The nations around Israel, however, had kings, and they wielded more power. The people decided that they wanted a king, too.

God had the prophet Samuel tell them all the things they’ll hate about having a king: “He’s going to take your sons for soldiers and farmers and workmen, and your daughters to be cooks and perfumers and other things we won’t mention. He’s going to grab the best of everything you have – your fields, your vineyards, your orchards, your crops, your slaves – and divvy them up for himself and his pals. He’ll grab everything he wants, and you won’t have any say in the matter. You’re going to hate it.”

But the people refused to listen to Samuel, and said “No! We want to be like all the other kids!” And God sighed, and the people ended up with one tall and handsome but incompetent king, one very handsome and extremely cunning king who was also a fine musician, and one who wasn’t able to hold the kingdom together, so that it fell apart even before various empires started running roughshod over its fragments.

The kings were supposed to protect the people from the other kings and kingdoms, and they didn’t do that. And the people did hate it.

Most of us, at some point in our young adulthoods, asserted our independence from our parents. It’s a necessary part of growing up.

We see Jesus doing that in today’s reading from Mark. When his mother and siblings heard what people were saying – “He’s out of his mind!” – they braved the crowds and went to fetch him home.

I have no doubt that this was because of genuine concern for Jesus. He was challenging authority, in a time and place where challenging authority was not remotely a good idea. He was getting the Temple authorities worked up over his words and deeds; he was getting the better of them in their impromptu debates.

They’d say, “He has an unclean spirit,” which translates to, “He’s nuts,” and he’d respond in a fashion that proved emphatically that he was perfectly sane. He was drawing unwelcome attention to himself, and in first-century Palestine that was not a safe practice.

So Mary and her other children went to bring home the wayward one, and talk some sense into him. And he refused.

This is a big change. In the second chapter of the gospel of John, we read about the wedding at Cana. They ran out of wine, and Mary turned to Jesus and said, “They’re out of wine.“ Jesus told her, “That’s not my problem; it’s not my time.” She ignored him and told the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.” So Jesus had them fill up the water jars, and he turned the water into excellent wine.

Now it is his time, his time to stand up and follow the path set out for him.

His words – “Who are my mother and my brothers? Whoever does God’s will is my brother and sister and mother” – are sometimes interpreted as a rejection of his family, and, even, sometimes, as a suggestion that others’ family members who don’t go along with a particular version of God’s will should be cut off. (That’s not a typically Anglican response, I am happy to note.)

Jesus is clearly not rejecting his family, however. We later see Jesus speaking tenderly to his mother as her worst nightmare comes true; we know that Jesus’s brother James became the head of the fledgling Church in Jerusalem.

Instead, we see Jesus resolutely pushing aside the protection his birth family attempts to give him. We see him stepping out, eventually to be hailed as the Messiah, even though he knows what happens to those who disturb the status quo in Roman-occupied Palestine.

In that time and place, the extended family was the foundation of society. Everything was calculated by kinship – for an extreme example of that, see the priestly caste – with cousins most often marrying cousins. And if you weren’t family, you weren’t anything, at least as far as most people were concerned.

In this moment, we see Jesus opening a door to wider considerations of what constitute family. In the same way, the new Church will open the faith to “the nations” – the Gentiles – as well as to Jews. In the same way, the Church will overcome tribalism and nationality, and welcome all to the Body of Christ.

It’s a courageous act and a meaningful act on Jesus’s part. It is one of the first of many such that we will see from him along these lines, from speaking to Samaritans to healing the slave of a Roman centurion. Jesus is giving notice that the Kingdom of God is open to all.

The ancient Israelites made a mistake when they decided it would be better to be ruled by human kings than by judges. But Jesus was right in his choice to go forward on the path that his Father set out for him.

When he did, he opened the door so that we who believe in Jesus have become his brothers and sisters. And that is a priceless gift.

– Sarah Bryan Miller

 

The Trinity (Heresy optional)

Creed_icon_(Russia,_17_c.)_wikiHappy Trinity Sunday, when we sing one of my all-time favorite hymns, “St. Patrick’s Breastplate” (aka “I bind unto myself today”), albeit too often without all the verses.

The Trinity is one of those hard-to-explain, much-dreaded-by-preachers, oft-handed-to-the-person-on-the-bottom-of-the-totem-pole subjects for Sunday sermonizers.

This could have something to do with the fact that the Trinity is extremely difficult to explain. As the Donall and Conall video “St Patrick’s Bad Analogies” proves, even St. Patrick fell into heresy in the attempt.

I’m comfortable with the idea of the Trinity. I don’t mean to say that I could explain it theologically without (almost certainly) lapsing into egregious heresy, but I do think that it’s the only logical way to explain the different faces and facets and characteristics that God presents to the world, without either going all polytheistic and full-bore heretical or denying that Jesus is a part of the Godhead.

I’m comfortable with the concept of the Spirit, of Wisdom, demonstrating the feminine side of the Godhead, a counterpoint to the oft-cranky God the Father, so swift to smite in the Hebrew Bible. I’m comfortable with Jesus, our brother, our friend, the approachable God in man made manifest. I’m quite comfortable with offering prayers to all three Persons of the Trinity.

With the three Persons of the Trinity, to pray without ceasing becomes as seamless as shifting gears on an old Toyota. The Spirit guides us into truth, and we pray (if we have any sense at all) for wisdom. Jesus joins us on the road, a companion and helper. God the Creator is all around us. I don’t worry too much about the specific address. I just offer my prayer to God, and know that it is heard.

– Sarah Bryan Miller

 The Nicene Creed explains it for us; so, in much greater detail, does the Athanasian Creed.

A chair with a view

WindowI lucked out the other day at the Infusion Center.

Jeannette found me a chair in a quiet corner, with no loud TV viewers in close proximity, and on an end with a window. To make things even better, it was in the realm of Barb, one of the compassionate veteran oncology nurses who always get the needle in the vein on the first try. Jeannette, the nurse in charge of the center, remembers me from the original cancer, and is unaccountably fond of me.

The first time I saw the center, it was after hours. Deserted in the late afternoon, unlit in the slanting sunlight, it was a little eerie. I walked in, looked around, and shuddered, the kind of shudder old-timers explain as the result of someone walking over your grave. The first time I had a treatment there, I entered feeling fine, but had to be helped out of my chair, thanks to the cherry-Kool-Aid-colored drug cocktail the nurses call “the Red Devil.” Inflammatory Breast Carcinoma is a particularly nasty and aggressive cancer, and requires a treatment to match.

This one is, in comparison, a piece of cake with extra frosting. The cancer is Stage 4 – the IBC decided on a return engagement in my sacrum – but the treatment is relatively easy. I take a pill every morning with my breakfast; once a week I take a Mystery Pill, part of a clinical study. Is it the real deal, or a placebo? I suspect the former, but even my oncologist doesn’t know. Once a quarter, I have scans to be sure that the cancer is behaving itself. Once a month, I get an infusion, a bone-building drug, delivered via IV. It leaves me feeling a little flu-ish for a couple of days.

I would doubtless have bitched and moaned at length about something like this Before Cancer; now, a veteran of much harsher treatments, I shrug it off. It’s not chemo; I’m not sick; I have hair; my brain is unfogged. How can I complain?

Now I focus on gratitude: gratitude for the researchers who have made it possible for me to survive this long with such a good quality of life, gratitude for my caring doctors, gratitude for the best phlebotomist I have ever had the pleasure to encounter, gratitude for the careful, caring nurses who even laugh at my jokes. I’m grateful for the friendly volunteer, a retired EEOC lawyer, who passed around the Girl Scout cookies (Thin Mints!) she discovered in a cabinet, and for all those who smile back when I smile at them. I’m grateful for a window to see a blooming garden on a sunny day in May. I’m grateful for the boss who gives me the time I need for my treatments. I’m grateful to God for giving me more time, however long that turns out to be.

The cancer has changed me, in more than physical ways, in good and caring ways. In that sense, even a deadly cancer can contain a blessing. I savor the view through the window, and say a prayer of thanks.

– Sarah Bryan Miller

Sermon notes: The Good Shepherd, and the sheep

Good_Shepherd_wikicommonsSERMON NOTES, EASTER IV – GOOD SHEPHERD SUNDAY (April 26, 2015 – Church of the Good Shepherd)

If you were paying attention just now during the readings – if you were actively listening, as opposed to wool-gathering – you will have noted two dominant themes today.

The first is of Jesus as the Good Shepherd. The second is closely related to it: The good shepherd is the one who is willing to lay down his life for the sheep. They’re creatures who need the help.

Today, the Fourth Sunday of Easter, is known as Good Shepherd Sunday. This is the closest that the people of this parish [the Church of the Good Shepherd] are going to get to a patronal feast day, so it’s important to make the most of it.

Thanks to the miracle of computer searches, I can now tell you that there are a total of 118 references to shepherds, as well as 200 references to sheep, in the Bible when we combine the Old and New Testaments. 23 of the shepherds and 50 of the citations appear in the relatively brief New Testament. (That’s in the New International Version; your translation may vary.)

The ancient Israelites were herders, and the greatest portion of their flocks were of sheep. Jacob, whose sons would give their names to the tribes of Israel, was a herdsman.

Jacob was an intelligent and an observant man, and he used his understanding of what we would call the science of Mendelian genetics, of dominant and recessive traits, to conspire against his equally tricksy father-in-law, Laban. By encouraging the birth of striped and spotted sheep, which he got to keep, Jacob built the numbers of his own flocks, and thus profit for himself.

David, the youngest son of Jesse, kept his father’s flocks. He was out in the fields with the sheep when the prophet Samuel came calling, looking for the Lord’s new choice of a king to replace the disappointing Saul. David picked up some handy skills with a simple but effective technology, the sling, in protecting those sheep from predators.

By the time of Christ, the local economy had diversified somewhat. Other career paths had opened between “shepherd” and “warrior.” This was fortunate, since neither profession was very highly regarded.

The issues with soldiers, who were often indistinguishable from bandits, aren’t hard to figure out. Soldiers are strong, and armed both with weapons and authority. They take what they want, whether it’s your money, your food supplies, your person, or your life. It’s wise to keep a low profile around them.

The reasons that shepherds were held in low esteem are a little less obvious to us today, but they were then at the bottom of society’s ladder. They tended to be light-fingered drifters, men of no property and no repute. Although hired to tend the sheep, they were unlikely to endanger themselves on behalf of the flock. When the going got tough, they usually simply slipped away.

Shepherds have hard jobs, physically difficult and sometimes dangerous. In lambing season, they can be up all night, helping the ewes in their labor and then standing ready to drive off all the predators who crave newborn lamb as a midnight snack. They’re out in all kinds of weather, and their food rations were typically meager in centuries past.

This isn’t the pretty pastoral picture we get from images of shepherds leaning under trees, playing their flutes while the sheep doze in the shade. They have to work to build the trust of their sheep; the sheep do get to know the shepherd’s voice, and to come when called – sometimes.

We don’t think about how the tough job of the shepherd is when we hear the Christmas story. We don’t think of how radical a concept it is that shepherds first heard of the birth of the Messiah from a cloud of angels, instead of the more respectable and well-to-do folk in town.

But all this makes Jesus’s portrayal of himself as the Good Shepherd considerably more striking than it might have been on its face. Once again, he has identified with the poor and lowly, the despised, the rejects of good society. The shepherd was a part of the reality of first-century life, along with the crucifixion of criminals. but both were parts of that reality that the educated and people who strictly kept the Law preferred not to notice.

The one shepherd who would really care about the sheep, and about keeping them safe, was the owner of the sheep – or the son of the owner.

Then there are the sheep themselves. As the singing mice in the classic movie “Babe” told us, “Sheep are definitely stupid.”

Sheep may be herd animals, but they have a disconcerting tendency to wander off on their own. The paths they take on those journeys often seem to make no sense. (The phrase “wool-gathering” comes from the Scottish Highlands, where small children were sent to gather the bits of wool that caught on the heather and gorse plants as the sheep passed by. It’s a task that took them wandering in seemingly pointless paths around the fields.)

Sheep have ways of getting themselves into situations from which they cannot easily extract themselves. Sheep and lambs need a lot of care. They range over large tracts of land in order to feed themselves, and they can be tough to locate. They’re easy prey for all manner of killers, from wolves and wild dogs to eagles to people.

Sheep frequently act without thinking and against their own interests. Sheep, in other words, are a lot like people.

Both sheep and people need caring leaders to watch over them and lead them in the right direction, to guide them to a safe pasture, to find water and shelter, and, if necessary, to lay down their lives for them.

Shepherds need help in keeping the sheep together when it’s time to move. The traditional assistant has been the dog; now, according to a recent story in the Wall Street Journal, drones are increasingly coming into use to find and round up sheep. But regardless of the nature of that assistant, a shepherd must still be in charge.

For us, as God’s people, Jesus is that shepherd. He came not just for the House of Israel, as he tells his disciples in today’s reading from John, but for all of us.

Jesus, the good shepherd, is calling us, ready to lead us where we need to go. Our responsibility is simply to listen to him and to follow. We know, we have his promise, that he will lead us to the safest of pastures, and that no danger is too great for his protection. With his help, we can fear no evil.

– Sarah Bryan Miller

 

Green-Up Time

Daffodil, close up“Lo, the fair beauty of earth, from the death of the winter arising! Every good gift of the year now with its Master returns!”

– Venantius Honorius Fortunatus (540?-600?)

This year, spring (the Midwestern variety, not just the precession of the equinoxes) arrived in remarkable synchronicity with Easter. The season of Easter, of course, continues for the Great 50 Days. So, if the weather smiles upon us, does spring.

Both seasons are now past their first blush. A few lonely blossoms cling to the half-leafed-out flowering crab outside my bedroom window, and the last of the narcissi have been clipped from the cutting bed out back. But even as a storm front knocks the fragile blossoms from one set of trees, the buds ready themselves to burst on another.

My father calls this “green-up time,” when leaves are new and grass re-grows, and that bright fresh green seen only in early spring is everywhere as the days lengthen recklessly on their way to summer. It’s the season for planting, whether crops, trees, or something in between in terms of permanence. So plant I did.

In fact, the only retail establishments to which I can easily walk from home are nurseries. In fact, there are four of them, three in a row just to the north of me, and one an outlier to the south. I headed out to buy pansies; their cheerful faces always brighten the pots outside my front door, to say nothing of my mood when I see them smiling back at me. On my way to Nursery #2, I noticed a sign at Nursery #1: “$99 trees.”

When this development was in its final stages of construction, someone found cheap white pines and planted them behind the houses. Unfortunately, the white pine doesn’t like our thick clay soil, and it doesn’t care for damp. Ours are planted on the low ground, and soggy roots are an issue. While one of my pines has done all right, the kindest word for the other one was “puny.” It was sick and sad, and largely bereft of needles.

I thought about it as I headed home with my plants and deposited them on my doorstep. Then I headed back to seek a tree, one that wouldn’t mind getting its feet wet.

The nursery man looked for an oak variety he thought would suit, but they were sold out, and the new ones wouldn’t be $99. Then he hit on the river birch, a native of southern Missouri, a practical tree that can deal with flooding. I bought it, and called Jim the Landscaper to take out the old and put in the new.

For a couple of weeks, the birch looked decidedly dead. Last week I saw the first signs of buds, cautious signs, not-quite-sure signs. This week, suddenly, there are thousands of tiny grass-green leaves, each expanding almost as I look.

Planting anything is an act of faith, whether it’s burying bulbs in the late-fall chill or trees by the pale light of early spring. For those of us with short life expectancies, bulbs are the safer bet. I expect to see mine come up several times.

But trees are for the long haul. It may not grow tall enough fast enough for me ever to enjoy its shade, but that’s all right; others will appreciate it in years to come. It is a connection to the future, a bond with God’s earth, and a promise for springs to come.

– Sarah Bryan Miller

Doubting Thomas on Low Sunday

caravaggio-thomasThis Sunday is formally known as the Second Sunday of Easter. It’s also known as “Low Sunday,” a name enshrined even in the Churchman’s Ordo Kalendar on my wall, the handy ecclesiastical authority on saints’ days and holy days and what lessons get read when.

Some of the “Low” is about the notable contrast in ritual and liturgy between the the most important feast of the year, Easter Day, and the Sunday that follows it. Some of it concerns attendance; most Christians try to make it to church for the Feast of the Resurrection, but relatively few feel obliged to show up again so soon after it.

That is a shame, because the gospel reading for Low Sunday concerns an apostle with whom many of us can sympathize, Thomas.

The name Thomas means “twin” in Aramaic; he’s also called Didymus, the Greek equivalent. (We don’t know his given name; we also have no word on whether or not his closest relative was also a disciple.) He seems to have been a practical man, as well as a faithful follower. When Jesus announced his plans to go to Jerusalem after the raising of Lazarus from the dead, an act which certainly put him into the Temple authorities’ crosshairs, Thomas said, “Let’s go too, so that we can die with him.” You can practically hear the eyeroll.

Later, when Jesus says that he’s going to prepare a place for his followers, Thomas points out, “Lord, we don’t know where you’re going, so just how do you expect us to find our way there?”

It’s not exactly surprising, then, that Thomas, who wasn’t there when the risen Christ appeared to the other apostles, loudly expresses his skepticism. Maybe he even got a little snarky, the way he did in Bethany after the raising of Lazarus. He wanted to be perfectly clear on this: “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger there, and put my hand into the wound in his side, I’m not going to believe it.”

Jesus called him on it, appearing in the closed room where the disciples were meeting, and saying, “All right, Thomas, here you go!” Then Thomas did believe, responding “My Lord and my God!”

Jesus answered with a question and answer for the ages: “Do you believe now that you’ve seen me? Blessed are they who have not seen, and still believe.”

We were born much too late, and in much the wrong place, to have experienced Jesus up close, as his first disciples did. We have to take him on faith. We may feel Christ’s saving presence in our lives and be assured of his love for us, but short of a mystical experience along the lines of a Francis of Assisi or Teresa of Avila, we can’t touch the stigmata of his crucifixion.

Fortunately, it’s all right to have doubts; it’s perfectly acceptable to ask questions. It’s okay to believe in the truth of Jesus’s resurrection more on one day than another. If we ask, Christ will give us the answer we need, just as he did for Thomas, and for many more who have come to question in the centuries since then.

Some of us will always be Thomases by nature; what matters is how we respond to the answers that we’re given. Any day can hold the joy of Easter when our hearts are open; Low Sunday can come more than once a year when they’re closed.

– Sarah Bryan Miller

 

 

 

Easter gladness, Easter joy

HappyBabybyWeirdBeardIt was one of those bright moments that sweetly sums it up, bringing our attention to what’s really important.

At the start of the 9 o’clock service on Easter Day –  after a heroic prelude, the introit responses (“The Lord God omnipotent reigneth. Let us rejoice and be glad!”), and one of the great hymns of the Church, “Easter Hymn” (non-musicians know it as “Jesus Christ is Risen Today”), sung and played full out by the choir and congregation, brass and organ – there came an unexpected affirmation.

Just as the music began to die away, just as priests and people caught their breath and began to move on to the next (spoken) thing, a tiny girl in the back of the nave shouted out a spontaneous “Yay!” Her joy was palpable and contagious, a perfect non-liturgical reaction for someone experiencing that particular joy for the first time. The congregation laughed in appreciation. The rector said, “We’re going home now,” because, in a sense, it had all been said.

We didn’t, of course, and (without the sermon, anthem, and communion, just for starters) it hadn’t, of course. But it was a useful reminder. After all, we already know the story, how Jesus died and rose again, of his followers’ grief and elation. In that moment, she reminded us that the story is always new.

– Sarah Bryan Miller