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: Giving up, taking on

© BrokenSphere / Wikimedia Commons

© BrokenSphere / Wikimedia Commons

SERMON NOTES, ASH WEDNESDAY (2013, Preached at St. Peter’s/Ladue)

The party’s over. It’s time to hang up the beads. Today we embark on the season of Lent, the forty days leading up to Easter.

The time span reflects the period that Jesus spent in the wilderness, fasting, praying, preparing for his ministry, facing and resisting temptation. The purpose of Lent may be found in the collect for the day: We ask God to give us new and contrite hearts, to help us to acknowledge our sins, to receive forgiveness for them.

That’s something we should do every day, of course. But Lent gives us a focus and a framework for accomplishing it.

This is a period of preparation for us, as followers of Christ, for the world made holier by the light of the Resurrection. In the early Church, Lent was the time when new converts were prepared to receive baptism, learning about the doctrines of the faith and what is required of believers. Through the centuries, this season has been a time to focus on prayer and penitence, on doing without and doing for others.

How do we keep a holy Lent?

When I was a child in a High Church household, it was all very straightforward. I gave up sweets, which I loved – I mourned whenever Valentine’s Day arrived after Ash Wednesday – and my favorite television show. I put money – the pennies, nickels, and dimes which still had some value then – in my mite box, to help poor children. I tried to do my chores more cheerfully, and without being reminded. I said my prayers. On Fridays, I ate fish sticks.

In later years, it got more complicated.

There were years when I gave up chocolate. There were years when I treated Lent as a sanctified diet aid. There were years when I did nothing at all to observe the season.

In all of that I had plenty of company. There’s a tendency among some modern American Christians to observe Ash Wednesday as a sacred New Year’s, to focus on personal self-improvement instead of the spiritual: to give up alcohol, or smoking, or fatty snacks because giving up alcohol, or smoking, or fatty snacks is good for us physically.

It is a sacrifice to give up things we enjoy, whatever they are, but sometimes we don’t look beyond a few obvious suspects. It might be more useful to examine some of the other things in our lives, and consider the importance they hold for us. Sometimes we may find that those things have become little gods for us, and that we are worshipping at other altars.

It’s a good thing to exercise; it’s not so good to obsess about it and run roughshod over family life. It’s a good thing to connect with friends; it’s not so good to spend whole evenings on Facebook, or to check the Twitter feed every few minutes. It’s fun to play video games, but not to the point that they make us cranky and obsessive. It’s fun to play Words with Friends, but this Lent I’m going to play just a couple of times each day, instead of grabbing the phone every time my day slows down.

At least as important as giving something up is to take something on. We can check the daily meditation from “Forward Day by Day” every morning, or be conscientious about reading Morning and Evening Prayer. We can walk a labyrinth, or join a Bible study. We can work to increase our giving of time, talent and treasure, both at church and in the community. We can take on something new, as well as give up something familiar.

There’s another important point to keep in mind, and that’s the one that Jesus is talking about in the gospel reading from Matthew: Don’t make a big deal about it. At a restaurant with friends, don’t announce, “Oh, I’ve given that up for Lent” when the wine list or the dessert menu comes around. It’s human nature to want to get credit for our sacrifices, but, as Jesus notes, the announcement itself then becomes our reward. Just smile and quietly decline. Even if you’re suffering withdrawal symptoms, don’t say anything. Keep them guessing.

Practicing our chosen Lenten disciplines is a form of spiritual exercise, and the point of the exercise is to bring us closer to God. The ways in which we observe a holy Lent have changed over the centuries, but not the reasons that we do it. Like the earliest Christians, our aim is preparation to lead new lives in Christ Jesus.

– Sarah Bryan Miller

GPN: Evensong

A Collect for the Presence of Christ
Evening Prayer, Rite II

Keep watch, dear Lord, with those who work, or watch, or weep this night, and give your angels charge over those who sleep. Tend the sick, Lord Christ: give rest to the weary, bless the dying, soothe the suffering, pity the afflicted, shield the joyous; and all for your love’s sake. Amen.

Choral Evensong has always been my favorite service.  I would go every day if it were offered where I live, though daily services are rare outside of monastic settings or the United Kingdom. The petition to “shield the joyous” especially touches me as I think of the vulnerability of those who are utterly happy. It has often come to mind in recent years as marriages and babies have blessed our family and created a great cocoon of happiness: Shield the joyous.

Now our nation is once again in mourning for the shattering loss of innocent souls and the beginning of lifetimes of suffering for their families. Trying to understand why people commit such heinous acts may be akin to looking for reasons why winds blow or rains come or fail to come; it is what they do. And yet we must try, perhaps to protect other happy, innocent people from unthinkable evils. Shield the joyous.

Pray for a calming presence to bless and protect these suffering souls, and all of the people in the world.

– Susan Leach

The other new year

The first Sunday in Advent begins the new church year, which makes the Saturday before it, effectively, the Christian New Year’s Eve.

I have never heard of anyone staying up late to observe it, or using it as an excuse for overindulgence. Indeed, early on Saturday evening Greenwich Mean Time, my friend Prudy, the Benedictine prioress, wrote on her Facebook wall from England, “We have rung in the new liturgical year, we have sung Vespers and our Vigil Office, and now it’s time to go to bed!”

That’s probably as it should be. Advent is a season of watchful preparation, and hangovers aren’t conducive to that spirit.

But there’s another common New Year’s custom which adapts well to a Christian context: making resolutions. I’m not thinking of the usual “I will go to the gym every day, give up eating anything tasty, clean out all my closets, learn a new language, and lose 20 pounds by Groundhog Day” resolutions here. Those can wait for December 31.

What I have in mind are resolutions to be more prayerful, more mindful, more intentional, to start the day with prayer and end it in the same way, to think before speaking, to act with care. This Advent I want to spend as much time helping others as I do shopping, to put as much of my money into giving to the church and the needy as I do into spending on gifts and self-indulgence.  I want to be kinder and more thoughtful, more helpful, more loving toward those I meet.

I feel about Advent and Christmas as I do about Lent, Holy Week, and Easter: How can we fully appreciate the joy of the holy day if we haven’t also experienced the quiet and discipline of the season that comes before it? Quiet can be hard to come by in the stressful, jangling weeks before Christmas, but if we make the effort to seek it out and find time with God, now and throughout the year, our lives will be far richer for it.

Happy new year.

– Sarah Bryan Miller


Breaking the drought

It’s been a terrible summer, a season of epic heat and drought. Heat records are smashed almost every day; there have been two weeks’ worth of triple-digit temperatures, with the odd dip down into the 90s.

The drought started long before that, and shows no sign of abating. The grass is crunchy where not watered every day, and arborists warn that even mature trees are imperiled; I’ve been setting the hoses on a trickle and giving crinkly-leaved trees and bushes long slow soakings in hopes of saving them. Fireworks displays were canceled all over the St. Louis area on Independence Day for fear of fire. The Mississippi River is so far down from its usual levels that the children of Illinois will be able to cross it dry-shod without benefit of miracles if this goes on much longer.

The sum of this weather pattern is disastrous. Drought-stricken crops mean higher food prices later, and still more economic hardship for a part of the country that was already suffering. Meanwhile, energy and water bills promise to rise to epic levels. The heat soaks through the walls and saps the energy; dozens have died around the Midwest in the last few weeks.

This morning when I awoke, it was with anxiety over getting all the watering done before leaving for church. But there were clouds overhead, and by the time I was dressed it was raining – just a short shower, but enough that I reckoned I could read the paper instead of dragging the hose around first thing. The rain started up again, more heavily, and continued steadily all morning. There were still puddles in the street late in the afternoon: Who would think that such a sight could bring such joy?

The drought isn’t broken, by any means, and the heat wave is expected to continue this week. The storms brought promise, though: This won’t last forever.

We can experience spiritual droughts, too, stretches when comfort and inspiration can seem far away, when our souls feel parched. The solution to what seems to be unanswered prayer is more prayer, because a response will come if we keep knocking – pounding, beating, hammering, if necessary – on Heaven’s door. God will not leave us comfortless: This won’t last forever.

A Prayer for Rain

O God, heavenly Father, who by thy Son Jesus Christ hast promised to all those who seek thy kingdom and its righteousness all things necessary to sustain their life: Send us, we entreat thee, in this time of need, such moderate rain and showers, that we may receive the fruits of the earth, to our comfort and to thy honor; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

– Sarah Bryan Miller

Sermon notes, Good Friday: Walking with Jesus

Jean-Jacques Tissot: What Our Savior Saw from the CrossSERMON NOTES, GOOD FRIDAY, April 6, 2012 ∙

Today, Jesus’s long journey to the Cross has come to its end.

We have been walking with him on his painful road for the last 40 days, in the Sunday Gospel readings, in the daily office readings, and in our own Lenten disciplines.

From week to week, we have followed the story: from Jesus’s baptism in the Jordan and temptation in the wilderness, to his teaching his disciples about his future suffering. We have seen him enter Jerusalem in triumph and drive the moneychangers out of the Temple. We have watched as he celebrates the Passover with his friends, and then as he is sold to the authorities by one of them.

The arc of the last day is particularly dramatic. Jesus goes quickly from hero, hailed by the crowd, to criminal, denounced by the mob. And it all happens so fast.

From the supper in the upper room, to the garden where he goes to pray, there is a sense of foreboding. Then he is betrayed, arrested, denied, taken to trial, scourged, condemned to death, all with bewildering speed. It cannot have been more than 12 hours from the time he was taken in the garden until he was nailed to the cross between two bandits.

By now, a little after noon, Jesus has been hanging on the cross for just over three hours. His followers have scattered, afraid of meeting the same horrible fate; only a few of the faithful, most of them women, remain to watch their Lord to the end. His earthly journey is nearly at an end.

Crucifixion has a long and loathsome history in the annals of human savagery. It was a regular feature in the Mediterranean world from the 6th century before Christ until the 4th century AD. For tyrants, it was the perfect combination of public humiliation and unspeakable torture.

Crucifixion assured that the victim would experience the maximum suffering possible, often over a period of several days. It thus had the additional benefit of providing passersby with a vivid incentive to toe the line. The Roman philosopher and statesman Marcus Tullius Cicero called it “a most cruel and disgusting punishment.” I’m always impressed when the ancient Romans denounce a practice as too cruel.

He added that “the very mention of the cross should be far removed not only from a Roman citizen’s body, but from his mind, his eyes, his ears.” Indeed, crucifixion was a punishment for slaves and criminals. To be crucified was to lose whatever status you had in that highly stratified world.

No wonder the apostle Paul found the cross a tough sell to Jews and Greeks alike.

The noted philosopher Mel Gibson has been quoted, in justifying the violence in his film “The Passion of the Christ,” as saying that no one else has ever suffered as much as Jesus Christ suffered. Not only is that untrue – many thousands suffered as much or more as Jesus suffered – but it misses the point.

This is a part of the path that Christ walked, a part of the miracle of God humbling himself to be born not just as a human but as one of low rank, and to die as the lowest. Born in a stable, extending the hand of love to the unclean, feeding the hungry and washing feet, even dying like a slave, Jesus consistently took the part of the poor, the weak, the despised. He died, as we will die, but in dying he gave us life.

We have been walking with Jesus all through Lent, all through Holy Week. In this hour, we watch his last agonies, and hear his final words from the cross.

We sometimes doubt and question God; and even Jesus, the Son of Man and Son of God, could cry out in his pain, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Even in his pain, Jesus prayed “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

We see the grief of his disciples, the women and men who had the courage to stay with him to the end. We see the courage of Joseph of Arimathea, who dared to ask Pilate for the body, and took it down from the cross for burial, and Nicodemus, who once came by night to see Jesus, from fear, but now openly assisted him.

We feel the faith of Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of Joses, who watched as their Lord was buried, noting the spot. When all seemed lost, on that darkest of days, they still did not desert him.

We have been walking with Jesus all through Lent, but will we continue to walk with him when Lent is over? We will be freed of our Lenten disciplines, but will we remember why we took them on? We will celebrate the Paschal feast, but will we remember Christ’s humility and his love and sacrifice for us? Will we remain as faithful as those who watched and stayed?

Loving God, when the darkness of this day is past, keep us ever mindful of what our Lord suffered for our sakes, and ever walking in your way in faith and truth, that when our own trials are past we may join you in eternal light. This we ask in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

– Sarah Bryan Miller


When I can, I start my morning by doing a full set of the floor exercises that I need to strengthen my spine and core, starting with stretches and ending with crunches. I walk for an hour every day when it’s possible.

When I can’t do a full set, I try to do at least a few of my exercises. When it’s not possible to walk for an hour, I walk for a half hour, or for fifteen minutes, or even ten. My theory about  exercise is that anything is always better than nothing.

When I can, I read the Daily Office, beginning my day with Morning Prayer and ending it with Compline. When I can’t do them all, I do what I can.

When I can, I say my prayers the way my mother taught me, starting with the Lord’s Prayer and ending with thanksgivings and intercessions for family, friends, dire situations, and for myself. When I can’t, I say the Jesus Prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” I say, “Lord, I am not worthy to receive you, but only say the word, and I shall be healed.”

Sometimes, with the writer Anne Lamott, all we can say is, “Help me, help me, help me,” and “Thank you, thank you, thank you,” trusting God to fill in the rest. My theory about prayer is that anything is always better than nothing.

– Sarah Bryan Miller

The pathology report

The phone rang just after noon on Sunday. It was my surgeon, a man as kind as he is skillful: “Your pathology report found its way to my office over the weekend,” he said, “and I didn’t want to make you wait any longer for the results.”

I suspect he also wanted the pleasure of personally delivering the unalloyed good news that the cancer was dead and gone, so thoroughly departed that only microscopic traces of the tumor remained in tissues that once harbored five deadly centimeters of pure ugly aggressive malignancy. The tissue margins were clear. The lymph nodes were clear. The chemo worked, and all of the struggles of the last six months were worthwhile.

My oncologist has used words like “astounding” and “amazing” to describe the tumor’s response to treatment right from the start. The chemo worked, but I believe there’s more to it than that.

The other thing working on the tumor from the beginning was prayer: the prayers of family, friends, and colleagues, the prayers of my own parish and my father’s, prayers offered by other churches, synagogues, and religious communities, the prayers of online friends and people I don’t know.

My mother used to say that she could feel it when people prayed for her. I feel it too, a kind of lightening and buoying up, a reassurance of the love, faith, and concern of others.

Attempts by researchers to study the effects of prayer on the sick have, unsurprisingly, yielded mixed results, and I do not pretend to know why some prayers are answered and others don’t seem to be. For now, I am simply grateful for the knowledge and skill of my doctors and nurses, and for the mercy of God in this miraculous gift of healing.

– Sarah Bryan Miller



On prayer

I know I’m going to regret writing about prayer, as anything I can say is bound to sound trivial and superficial. But I’ve inevitably been thinking about it in the last few days, as so many of us have accompanied Bryan through her clinical Odyssey with our prayers.  How does it work? Does it work at all? Is there any point in it when God already knows our needs? Does God look down and observe people around the world all praying together and think, “Hm, I suppose I’d better do something about this since such a lot of them are going on about it”?

Recently, too, I’ve been ploughing through a list of new religious movements to find material for a book which my husband is updating. A couple of the ones I came across were small Christian fundamentalist groups who had decided that to rely on medical help showed a lack of faith in God; they avoided doctors and just prayed for healing.  Both groups had a high mortality rate, especially among children, and some horrific stories of suffering and pain.

I don’t doubt that God can heal just like that, if he so chooses – there are enough well-attested cases of apparently inexplicable cures to suggest that it does indeed happen. Why it does sometimes I have no idea – I gave up long ago trying to guess what God’s going to get up to next.  But normally he expects us to be sensible people and seek our healing through the skill of medical professionals as well as through prayer.

For some reason completely beyond the scope of human imagination, God seems to want us to co-operate with him, as well as with one another. He designed us to be interdependent, needing one another as well as needing him, so we need the help of our fellow human beings.  And he’s delegated to us a share in his work of creating and healing. He doesn’t need our co-operation, but it seems he wants it.

Jesus encourages us to pray and to keep on praying, persisting like the widow who finally wore out the unjust and uninterested judge. Sometimes it even seems that he won’t do anything until we get involved and start working with him. What a responsibility, and what a joy!

– Margaret Z. Wilkins

“Only God knows…”

My heart sank when the editor of our church magazine asked me to take over the parish prayer diary this year.

The prayer diary occupies the centre spread of the magazine, listing three suggestions for prayer against each day of the month. The first is straightforward enough; three or four streets in the parish, so that those who live in every road of our parish get prayed for once a month. The second and third are, well, mostly random, as I discovered when I checked through back numbers of the magazine. Some of them were obvious targets for prayer, like local schools and care homes; some were very vague, like “those who care for others.”. It looked as if the diary had been floating in limbo for some time.

So it’s been a challenge to sort it out this month, and probably will be every month. Saints are a big help; on the day they’re commemorated you can suggest prayer topics that relate to their life.

So for Polycarp on February 23rd I suggested prayer for bishops and for those who suffer for their faith (trusting that the two groups aren’t necessarily identical), and for George Herbert on the 27th for spiritual writers and for parish clergy.

For other days, well, I had to use my imagination. My husband cheerfully suggested groups which tend not to be widely prayed for, such as lion-tamers and people who suffer from flatulence, but even without his dubious help it was trickier than I expected – is it too political to ask people to pray for asylum seekers? Does the list reflect my own concerns too much?

With all its faults, February’s diary is done, and sent to the editor, and on Sunday the magazine will be there at the back of the church. I doubt very much that I shall get any feedback, and I don’t even know how many people use the diary in their daily prayers. Only God knows what will come of it.

But I suppose that’s like all the things we undertake in his service; we plant a seed or contribute an idea, and perhaps it dies, or perhaps God uses in ways we know nothing about, and can’t even begin to imagine.

– mzw