Partners in the song

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Watching for the Morning of October 1, 2017

The Commemoration of St. Francis and The Blessing of the Animals

On this first Sunday of October, nearest to the feast day of St. Francis, our parish celebrates the blessing of the animals. The readings for the day are chosen around that theme. Follow this link for a comment on the regularly appointed texts for this Sunday. Other comments/reflections can be found for by following this link, Proper 21 A / Lectionary 26 A.

File:Meerkat (Suricata suricatta) Tswalu.jpgThere are hundreds of glorious pictures to choose from when you begin to look: the creation is stunning in its variety and splendor. The creatures with whom we share this awesome world are wondrous in their diversity, beauty, majesty – and, sometimes – strangeness. It seems impossible for a picture of meerkats not to make you smile. Fawns of any kind evoke tenderness. In its familiarity, we forget how strange is an elephant’s nose. Butterflies seem such an ephemeral beauty – yet monarchs migrate thousands of miles. Whales, chipmunks, water buffalo, and the myriad things that squirm and make us squirm – it is an amazing world.

File:Giant sequoias in Sequoia National Park 2013.jpgStand beneath redwoods or giant sequoias. Let yourself be cradled in the arms of an oak. Walk among aspens. Ponder the tiniest alpine flowers. Consider the myriad forms of things that grow. Some we love – pears and peaches and fresh corn.   But then there are nettles and poison oak. And there are mosquitos, wondrous in their form but irritating and sometimes dangerous in what they carry.

Horned toads. Penguins. Emu. Fox. The strange things hidden deep in the sea. The microflora in our gut. The world is bursting with life.

File:Caesio teres in Fiji by Nick Hobgood.jpgEven beasts as terrifying as the great white shark are wondrous and beautiful.

Walking to and from the office on suburban streets past rose bushes, decorative trees and chirping birds, amidst all the distractions of tasks to be done and routines followed, it is possible to forget the wonder and mystery of the natural world. We don’t stand in awe of night skies; we cannot see them. We don’t search the horizon hoping for rain and fearing hail, knowing our lives are dependent on the fragile green stalks turning into bursting clusters of grain. We fear no beasts in the night. We see little of the beauty of the sunrise or sunset.

File:Väimela Mäejärv 2011 09.jpgSomething is lost in our relationship not only with the natural world around us, but with the divine. There is a taste of the holy in the beauty of the world. There is a shudder of the holy in the power of its storms. The enduring faithfulness of God is whispered by the pattern of the seasons and the enduring hills. The tenderness of God is witnessed in the care of songbirds for File:Gavia immer1 BS.jpgtheir chicks. Watching the small screen on our cell phones we lose track of the far horizon, the enduring truth that we are small and there is something greater than ourselves, the enduring truth that we must care for one another if we are to survive, the enduring truth that we must care for the land if it is to care for us.

You cannot cut down the fruit trees when you besiege a city, says Deuteronomy, and it is not legislation but vision: Are the trees men that you should make war on them?” You can take the eggs from a nest, but not the hen that lays them. You must give thought for the future. The Sabbath law applies even to animals. We must care for the world around if we are to know life’s goodness. We must care for one another. We must become partners in the song of all creation.File:Butterfly Green-underside Blue - Glaucopsyche alexis 01.jpg

The Prayer for October 1, 2017

Gracious God, from whom and for whom all things exist:
In the wonder of the creation you bear witness to your majesty and grace.
All things proclaim your praise.
Grant us wisdom and courage
to tend with faithfulness all that you have entrusted into our care
and to lift our lives to you in thankfulness and praise;
through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Texts for October 1, 2017, Blessing of the Animals

First Reading: Psalm 104
“O Lord, how manifold are your works! In wisdom you have made them all.” – The psalmist sings of the wonder of the created world and summons us to recognize their the majesty and goodness of God.

Second Reading: Colossians 1:15-20
“He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; 16for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created.” – In the opening verses of this letter the author sings of the mystery of Christ Jesus as the truth at the heart of all existence and its ultimate goal.

Gospel: John 1:1-4
“In the beginning was the Word…All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being.” – The opening of John’s Gospel sees in Christ Jesus the embodiment of the Word that called all things into existence and speaks life to the world.

Images: By Hong Zhang (jennyzhh2008) [CC0 or CC0], via Wikimedia Commons By Charlesjsharp (Own work, from Sharp Photography, sharpphotography) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons By Tuxyso (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons By Vaido Otsar (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons By Cephas (Own work) [GFDL ( or CC BY-SA 3.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons By Zeynel Cebeci (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons


Remember the holy

Clouds and light


Luke 9:28-36

A cloud came and overshadowed them; and they were terrified as they entered the cloud.

One of my brothers got married some years ago, when my girls were young, at a place I presume, now, was in the Oakland hills. It was then – and is still – unfamiliar territory to me. I should ask my brother where this was.

I only know that after we left the wedding reception late that night, the road rose up along the edge of the grass covered hills and we were unexpectedly engulfed in a thick, thick fog. Suddenly there were no stars, no city lights, no horizon and no other cars. It was profoundly disorienting. We were in this ethereal white cocoon unable to see to the side of the road. It was also scary; we were traveling a mountain road and I could not see where the road went.

I have sympathy for Peter, James and John, an all night prayer vigil makes anyone’s head droop. They are alone up there, away from the safety and security of the village (this is not a world in which people went camping!), when suddenly they are startled awake by two men talking with Jesus. There before them are the holy figures of Moses and Elijah, radiant with the glory of the celestial realm. And then they are enveloped in a cloud – a cloud they know can only mean the divine presence. Like Moses and Elijah on Sinai, they are in the presence of the Holy One – these decidedly unholy fishermen.

Disorienting. Fearful. And then the voice. No wonder they kept silent about what they had seen.

We are a first name culture. We are a society in which everyone’s photos and thoughts are public. Here is me with my buds. Here is me on vacation. Here is me at dinner.   Here is the sunset I see, or the blossoming daffodils. (Yes, I know that grammatically it should be “Here am I”, but somehow the repetition of the word “me” seems more appropriate.) We post our favs and show our videos. Grieving families do the morning news. Not much is hidden.

It is hard to appreciate what Peter, James and John felt in the presence of the holy. But I felt a piece of it that night in the fog when I could see nothing familiar. When the world seemed to dissolve around me. When I was confronted with something I had never experienced before.

There is something good in that part of Christian faith that recognizes the intimacy of our relationship with God. Jesus, after all, dared call God “Father” and bid us do the same. But there is also a time to remember the holy, the otherness, the majesty and mystery of God. There is a time to be weak in the knees. There is a time to know the awe.


Photo: dkbonde

The unholy made holy


Acts 8:26-40

File:Menologion of Basil 006.jpg36As they were going along the road, they came to some water; and the eunuch said, “Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?”

It’s not an abstract question for the Ethiopian; it’s a highly personal one. He has just come from Jerusalem where the fact that he is a eunuch bars him from the temple. He is fundamentally flawed and not acceptable in God’s presence.

There is something to be said for the notion of holiness, that what we bring before God should be whole. Lame animals show no honor or respect for the Lord of all. Moldy grain, rancid oil – we ought not imagine making such gifts at the altar. God deserves our best. There is even something to be said for the notion that sinners ought to stand far off and not parade to the front, that we should come with humility, that we should approach God with care. But it is a far different thing for me to hold myself back than for others to make that judgment. It is for me to recognize God’s holiness, not for others to defend it. I should know my unworthiness rather than have someone point it out to me.

But Christ was crucified. He was made unholy. Outside the walls of the holy city, his death was hastened lest he pollute the holy days, while those who arranged his death went up to the altar with hands they regarded as clean. Pilate had to go out to the high priests as they conspired to murder Jesus, lest they pollute themselves by entering a gentile’s house.

The holy one – the truly holy one – was made unholy that we, the truly unholy, might be made holy in him. And now, what religious people excluded in order to defend God’s honor, God gathers in order to show his glory: the lame man at the temple, the Samaritans, the Ethiopian eunuch, Cornelius the centurion, gentiles in Antioch.  The stories of Acts follow the seeds Jesus sowed: the Syrophoenician woman, Matthew the tax collector, the woman with the flow of blood, sinners and tax collectors.

“What is to prevent me from being baptized?” asks the Ethiopian eunuch. Marred in the flesh by men, rendered unholy by the mighty, he is now made holy in Christ by the Almighty. As are we.

It is not our job to defend God’s honor. God will take care of himself. It is for us to be mindful of God’s honor and enter into his presence with humbleness – and joy.


Image: Menologion of Basil II, Menologion of Basileiou – 11th century illuminated byzantine manuscript with 430 miniatures, now in Vatican library.  Photo by Мастер Георгий ( [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

A trick of the eye

Sunday Evening

Acts 1

Glass altarpiece by René Lalique in St. Matthew’s Church (the Glass Church), Millbrook, Jersey

10While he was going and they were gazing up toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them.

As is my custom, I had my eyes closed and my arms crossed across my chest, bowing slightly as we sang the words “Holy, Holy, Holy” that Isaiah, in his wondrous vision, heard the seraphim singing in the presence of God when the earth shook and smoke filled the temple. It is a simple gesture that connects with many things in Christian tradition, not least with the prophets falling on their faces in humility before the presence of the holy God. That small bow acknowledges – at least to myself – that we, too, are in the presence of the almighty, singing the song of heaven.

As I stood at the altar, bowing as we sang, a shadow passed across my closed eyes. I was a little startled, thinking someone had walked in front of the altar. Why they would do that in the middle of the prayers over the bread and wine confused me. Of course, when I looked up, no one was there.

It was a trick of the eye, I assume. I am, after all, a citizen of the scientific world, cautious about claims about the spiritual world. But that little flicker of shadow distracted me as I continued with the prayers. It made me mindful of exactly what we say about worship – that we are joining the song of the angels – and about the Holy Communion – that Christ is present in the breaking of the bread.

I pray over the pews on Saturday, at least most Saturdays. I ask God to gather his people for worship. I ask God to fill each pew and to touch those who come with his Spirit and grace. I ask God to send his holy angels to keep watch at the doors that no darkness enters. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised if I get a reminder now and then that God keeps his promise that, “where two or three are gathered together in my name, there I am in the midst of them.” (Matthew 18:20)

The cloud


Exodus 24

File:Approaching mist.jpg16The glory of the Lord settled on Mount Sinai, and the cloud covered it for six days;

The prophet Isaiah writes, “Truly, thou art a God who hidest thyself” (45:15RSV)Isaiah’s vision in the temple amidst the shaking foundations and smoke and fearful seraphim is but a glimpse of the hem of the robe of the heavenly king.  Ezekiel’s vision is of the “appearance of the likeness of the glory” (1:28) of the LORD.

Elijah encounters God in the silence, not in the wind, earthquake or fire.  Moses’ first encounter is with a God hidden in the burning bush.  Abraham dreams of a smoking fire pot.  In answer to the question “who shall I say sent me,” Moses gets an enigmatic name that probably means “I am who I am,” or perhaps, “I will be who I will be.”  Job is answered from a whirlwind.

Only Adam and Eve have a direct, unmediated encounter with God when he walks in the garden in the cool of the evening.  And then Moses, of whom it is said “the LORD used to speak to Moses face to face, as a man speaks to his friend” (Exodus 33:11) in the tent of meeting.  And yet, in that very same chapter of Exodus, Moses is only allowed to see Gods back: “You cannot see my face; for no one shall see me and live.”  (Exodus 33:20)

The fact that the first Christians had no images of God led the Romans to call them atheists.  Deep in Hebrew and Christian faith is the sense that God is hidden, veiled, beyond our sight and comprehension.  So the dominant image of God’s presence is a cloud.

In a world that wants gods to be visible, God remains hidden.  We want visible; what we get is mystery.  Holiness.  Hiddenness.  The strange.  God behind a curtain.  Might and majesty hidden in the crucified.

And even Christianity’s notion that God has revealed himself in Jesus of Nazareth – or the sacraments, the bread and wine and water – even there, God is visible only to the eyes of faith.  In other words, he is not visible at all, except that we trust the promise of his presence.  The bread still looks and tastes like bread.  The water still looks and acts like water.  Yet God is there.  So God promises.  So we “see,” see with the eyes of wonder and trust, see with a spiritual insight, not a physical one.

And at a hospital bedside; at a graveside; when food is shared with the hungry; when the unwelcome are welcomed; prisoners visited; when unexpected grace happens – there, too, we “see”.   See the God otherwise hidden from us – but the God made visible in love and sacrifice.  The God made strangely visible in the broken body with a pierced side.  The God who does not shun suffering and sorrow, but meets us there.

So when we read about clouds at the Mount of Transfiguration, we know it means God is present.  And when we hear that Jesus will come “on the clouds of heaven” we know it’s not a reference to the sky.  And when we are groping in a fog; it bears a far greater secret than mere confusion.

Dirt, dirty, clean, holy


Psalm 15

Tetrapylon, Palmyra in Syria

1 O Lord, who may abide in your tent?
Who may dwell on your holy hill?

It’s an uncomfortable question.  We want to move quickly to the grace of God, the welcoming embrace, the overflowing forgiveness.  We don’t want to ask who is worthy to dwell in God’s presence.

The question of cultic purity was an important one in the ancient world.  There was a vivid sense of the sacred around each shrine.  To bring what was profane into the presence of the holy was a dangerous act, offending the god of that place.  It invited wrath just as an offense against a king invited wrath.

There is behavior appropriate to a football game that isn’t appropriate in court.  To speak out of turn in a legal proceeding, to violate the norms of the court, can land you in jail for contempt.  We make these distinctions all the time.  We raise our hands at school but such behavior would be out of place – or intentionally offensive – if it happened at the dinner table.  When I was a child, I had to wear a coat and tie to church; we had to wear our best in God’s presence.  Saturday night required a bath because you couldn’t go to church unclean.  These are only vague hints of the demands of an ancient shrine.  Paul was almost murdered by a mob of worshipers because of a rumor that he had desecrated the temple by bringing a Gentile into the inner court – and saved only because they had to drag him out of the courtyard before killing him lest his blood desecrate the temple and, as the mob was dragging him out, soldiers stepped in to arrest him.  Purity was exceedingly important.

Many cultures leave their shoes at the door to keep the outer impure world from desecrating the inner realm of the home.  It’s not just about keeping literal dirt outdoors.  The whole concept of ‘dirt’ is symbolic of something out of its proper place.  Dirt in the field isn’t dirt; it’s soil.  It only becomes dirt if you try to bring it into the kitchen where it doesn’t belong.  There is a boundary at the threshold of the house.  Just so, there is a boundary at the threshold of the shrine – a boundary between the heavens and the earth, between the realm of the gods and the world of the common, between the sacred and the profane.  You cannot bring what is unclean into the realm of the holy.

So who can enter into God’s sacred shrine?  Who can enter into the presence of the holy?  There are extensive descriptions regarding purity in the Torah, and the rituals to restore it.  But in answering this question of who may come onto God’s holy hill, our poet does not speak about abstaining from sex, ritual washings, or avoiding contact with blood and what is dead.  The true measure of purity is our treatment of others: refusing to take advantage of a person’s need by charging interest; refusing to speak ill of another; speaking the truth; keeping one’s oath even to your own detriment.  Those who are welcome in God’s holy city are those who do justice and mercy, who live on earth the justice and mercy that is the mark of heaven.

God is a God of grace.  There is welcome for the sinner.  He has made us worthy by wrapping us in Christ.  Yet the true measure of holiness remains: not personal purity but the care of our neighbor.

The Most Holy Trinity


English: A Chiton magnificus

English: A Chiton magnificus (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Some years ago while camping with my youngest daughter along the Lost Coast in northern California we found the shell of what looked like a trilobite on a rock on this remote and isolated shore.  Not a fossil, mind you, but something recently living, a deep red color, the strange ancient look of armored plates.  It had an unearthly quality to it.  Out of place and time.  It was strangely disconcerting.  Something I had not seen before.

It was not a trilobite, of course.  But in those days before the internet I couldn’t find someone who knew that it was a chiton, a marine mollusk with a snail like foot rather than the legs of a horseshoe crab, the true descendants of trilobites.

It’s hard to describe that sensation of being in the presence of something that seemed not to belong to this world: a mix of wonder and awe and dread.

We talk so easily about God.  We invoke God’s name with such confidence.  We imagine we know.  What has become of the wonder, awe and dread the ancients felt before the transcendent power of the universe?  Some of this is the fruit of the Christian message that God is love.  Jesus taught us to call the eternal one “Father”.  Jesus made God seem more human, approachable, loveable.  This is good, of course, important to say to those who live in fear or who feel alone in the world.  But what happens when we lose that sense of God’s otherness?

Tomorrow is not just Trinity Sunday; it is Holy Trinity.  In the Roman calendar it is officially the Solemnity of the Most Holy Trinity.  And we should not rush past that word holy, for that is the word that speaks of God’s otherness, that declares we are in the presence of something beyond our experience.

God should be unsettling.  Sinai was unsettling – the people begged for God not to speak to them directly, but through the human voice of Moses.  The things Jesus said and did were unsettling – they got him crucified.  The cross itself is profoundly unsettling, Jesus hanging there in anguish, abandoned, and God silent where we would expect the rage of heaven to rain down fire.  The empty tomb is unsettling, beyond all human experience. Pentecost is unsettling – the roar of a mighty wind and flames of fire and the ecstatic proclamation in every language – people leaving home and country to go out around the world to herald God’s reign.  None of this is familiar to us except we have made it so by telling the story so many times.  Even the message of forgiveness should be unsettling, for such is not the world we know.

The Most Holy Trinity.  The strange and unsettling power at the heart of the universe that creates and loves and redeems.  There is a reason Isaiah falls on his face in the temple when the seraphim sing “Holy, Holy, Holy.”  We should too.