St. Francis Day Sermon – Trinity Cathedral

20131004-110147.jpgA St. Francis situation has developed at my house recently.  For three years, I’ve owned an imposing and sweet German Shepherd named Benedict (yes, after the last pope–but the joke doesn’t end there).  About two weeks ago, an adolescent kitten, black with a white belly and feet, started showing up on our front porch; the dear thing was rather malnourished, and suddenly our old neighbor’s words rang in my head: before he moved a month ago, he told us about a black outdoor kitten he’d just had neutered, who he hadn’t seen for a few days.  This hungry little animal must be the same one.

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We started feeding the dear cat, I named him Francis, after the current pope, and we embarked on a journey of tending two pets who couldn’t be trusted together.  I’m not sure what it means for the future of the Roman Catholic Church that the two most recent popes namesakes’ cannot exist in the same space together in our home, but my allegation that we Hyldens have a St. Francis situation on our hands isn’t about animals so much as it is about living together.

You see, St. Francis is famous for his devotion to animals.  He’s almost always depicted with a bird or other critter, and many of the apocryphal stories about his life and miracles include animals as main characters and beneficiaries of his witness.  Indeed, in our courtyard here, just outside the doors of the chapel, we have a St. Francis statue, surrounded by cement fauna.  This obsession with St. Francis and animals misses the point, though.  Francis started a holy order for men, the Franciscans, as well as a companion order for women, called the Poor Clares; he was a great preacher, teacher, and missionary; it is even said that he received the stigmata, that is, the marks of Christ’s suffering on his own body, during a vision near the end of his life.  Francis’ association with animals is less about the animals themselves, though he clearly cared deeply for all of creation, and more about what his devotion communicated about God.

My dog, Ben, has white-and-black Shepherd markings, not the black-and-tan you most often see on that breed.  This coloring makes lots of people who see him joke, “and what percentage of wolf does he have in him?”  To those who don’t really know him, he looks frightening–and that’s why I got him in the first place–but we have hope that he and Francis can grow to be friends because we know that he is a sweet, soft-hearted dog.

In a similar-but-opposite way, St. Francis looks docile and perhaps even ineffective in his sweet pastoral scenes surrounded by animals, but in reality, he is revered by many as the most Christ-like of any saint in our church’s history.  To associate him only with animals is to ignore the heart of who Francis was and what his example offers to us.  He was converted by a sermon he heard on Matthew 10:7-10, which states, “‘And as you go, preach, saying ‘The kingdom of heaven is at hand.’  Heal the sick, cleanse the lepers, raise the dead, cast out demons. Freely you have received, freely give.  Provide neither gold nor silver no copper in your money belts, nor bag for your journey, nor two tunics, nor sandals, nor staffs; for a worker is worthy of his food.'”  He understood Jesus’ charge to his disciples as aimed at all Jesus’ disciples throughout time and space, even to Francis himself, even, perhaps, to us today.  Francis took this command to heart, and traveled, preaching and teaching his whole life by both word and example.  He told anyone who would listen about the way that God had taken charge and changed his own life, he preached to people who didn’t listen.  Francis preached to everyone, all the time.  Francis even preached to animals.  He was rabid in his proclamation of the gospel to every person and thing that crossed his path.

Francis and his animals aren’t so much about animals needing God’s blessing, but about the charge which we receive, which Francis also received and responded to, which is to preach the Gospel all the time, to everyone, everywhere.  God, in Jesus Christ, came to live with humans so that we might know God’s love in the most personal way; we are witnesses to this love.  Dear friends of mine started the Community of the Franciscan Way in Durham, North Carolina; those with jobs who live in the house provide food, shelter, and companionship to people who have no other place to stay.  Those with no other place to stay are not required to live by the rule of life followed by the others living in the community, nor are they compelled to stay any longer than they wish.  The point is to live in complicated relationships, not trying to change others (but perhaps praying that you yourself would be changed).  May we follow the example of Francis, becoming so famous for our incessant preaching of the living God, that we, too, are forever remembered for talking so much that we talked to animals.

Morning Prayer & I-85 Exits

Back in June, when I made my first voyage back to my hometown* (Durham), about ten minutes out from my best friend’s home, I realized that we NEEDED cheese for our Sunday night repast. Flipping my brain quickly into cheese-emergency mode, I thought, “Must get to Whole Foods (only cheesey place open on Sunday nights). Where am I now? How to get there fast?” And my brain then did a very funny thing. It shut off. I exited the interstate, and my arms felt like they were moving themselves, turning the wheel; my foot had a mind of its own, pressing the brake and the gas. And then, I turned up in the Whole Foods parking lot–presto! What a strange thing to happen, I thought, that my brain wouldn’t do the think-through-the-map-you-keep-stashed-in-your-mind, calculating distances and times and the length of stoplights…

It dawned on me: my brain had done that exact thing so many times on those exact streets that it didn’t need to think anymore. Living in St. Louis, and now in Columbia, I can get around very well, but my mind is constantly calculating and reorienting itself to remember where things are located and how the streets line up. My mind didn’t have to think through routes from here to there because it’d been making that route in my brain so long, through so many seasons of road construction and rain, that my body–in a way–just knew how to get where I wanted to go.

It wasn’t like that in the beginning, back in 2004. I knew one way to get from point A to point B, and though it may have been super-inefficient, I wasn’t going to abandon that route for anything. Gradually, I added more mental map and I colored in the way traffic affected roads at various times of day–eventually, I knew the roads so well, they were just part of me, my arms and legs could take over.

Back in 2008, I prayed Morning Prayer for the first time. I was in one of the hard, straight-backed wooden pews at St. Joseph’s Episcopal Church in Durham. I didn’t know which page we started on, I didn’t know how to choose readings or canticles or collects (or exactly what “collects” were) or when to stand or kneel. It was uncomfortable and foreign and not very enjoyable, but it was required for Confirmation, which I’d decided to undergo for some reason, and so I mouthed the words and listened.

20130925-173749.jpgI was committed to leading one of the Daily Offices (Morning, Noonday, Evening Prayer, and Compline) every week of the academic year, which roughly lined up to our time as catechumens, preparing for Confirmation in the Episcopal Church. Further, we were to pray this set of Offices every day by ourselves, if we didn’t show up at church for it. I was overwhelmed and a little bit rebellious. I didn’t stick with it well at all over winter break that year. By the next summer, a newly minted Episcopalian for just over a year, my field education supervisor expected me to pray Morning Prayer with him every day in our parish’s chapel, and though I felt a bit rebellious here too (when I led, I used contemporary language), I think that is when I fell in love with the Daily Office. Those weeks cemented something in me; some mornings I almost cried through the prayers, I was so tired, so humiliated, so lonely. But every morning, those words were there again, and in a way, that time and place–8 a.m. in St. Agnes’ Chapel–became sacred and became home.

I returned to Durham and to St. Joe’s that autumn, to the people and place that had already been with me through plenty of change and confusion. Morning Prayer was no longer a burden, a commitment that I’d made and felt imprisoned to keep, but a joy and delight–a place and time where I kept meeting God in the words I said and heard.

A little more than a year ago, I arrived late to a service of Morning Prayer in the parish I was serving in Missouri; I jumped right into the canticle being recited, and then I just forgot to pick up a prayer book. The rest of the service had hidden itself in my memory and in my heart. My brain turned off and the words easily came out of my mouth. Just like my body knew exactly how to drive my car to the grocery store, my heart practiced and found its way to God in Morning Prayer.

Years ago, when I started eating breakfast at St. Joe’s with who ever showed up for eggs and grits, they gave me a key, for the mornings that I’d be the first one there to start the coffee.  I still keep that key on my key chain to remember the place and people who re-introduced me to Jesus.

Last week, a dear friend of mine said, “Sometimes big things are the easy things to be courageous about; the little things are hard.” Why can we commit to things like marriage and jobs, but find it so difficult to commit to something like daily prayer, Scripture memorization, or keeping up with pen pals?

(postscript: this is the community now)

Psalm 102

“a prayer of one afflicted, when faint and pleading before the Lord.” (prescript NRSV)

Psalms offer words for us to pray when we have none. They offer language for us to use when we’re not quite sure what to say, and are perhaps feeling empty or exhausted (or jubilant! or overflowing!). Psalm 102 offers a narrative: the first half describes in painful, vivid detail the condition of the supplicant, “my bones burn” (v. 3), “I lie awake. I am like a lonely bird on the housetop” (v.7), “I… mingle tears with my drink” (v.9). The last few verses move toward hope–recognizing that God remains no matter what circumstances may prevail in the life of the author (or pray-er) and their environment. Not only does God remain no matter what, but he promises rescue, redemption, resurrection, and blessing.

Jerusalem and Zion loom large in this psalm (“You will rise up and have compassion on Zion” v. 13; “For the LORD will build up Zion” v.16; v. 21); how do they reveal what God promises and what he’s doing? Jerusalem and Zion are the Promised Land–even when God’s people are in exile and diaspora, these places are held up as the site to which we will one day return. They are sort of like Heaven–they’re the place at the end of time where all things will be put in order again. So this psalm has a very long view–waiting for God to bring restoration to His people; they wait for peace and for the rebuilding of their true home.

There are sometimes geographical places, and chronological moments in time in our lives that give us a little taste or feeling of what this kind of togetherness and homeyness might be like. For me, that place is Durham, North Carolina.

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I went there this past week to witness a friend’s ordination (see yesterday’s post), and while I was there, I drove around in circles to visit all my dear old familiar places. I drove around to see and be in the midst of everyday places–not even “dear old” ones, but that one stoplight that takes 2 minutes to turn (I’ve timed it with eager soccer & ballet class attendees in my backseat), and that stretch of road I’ve driven thousands of times to get downtown or to get to the mall. I remember thinking to myself, “man, these lucky trees! they LIVE here their whole lives!” (how silly I get, driving down the highway…)

One of the verses of Psalm 102 spoke deeply to me on my visit. In the NRSV, it goes, “for your servants hold (Zion’)s stones dear, and have pity on its dust.” (v.14) The 1979 Book of Common Prayer renders it, “for your servants love her very rubble.” The BCP version alludes to the destructed state of the Promised Land, but both get at the feeling that even the dirt and the bricks and the trees of a place might bring one to awe and silence at their precious place in your life.

What places or experiences have felt to you like a “thin spot” or a glimpse or fleeting feeling of Heaven and Home?

Ash Wednesday – Don’t Get Too Comfortable – the Church of St. Michael & St. George

When I was in seventh grade, I started to learn what it meant for growth to be painful; I met my orthodontist, Dr. Bunkers, and he fitted my mouth with an expander.

This spider-like metal device affixed to the roof of my mouth had a keyhole into which my mom fitted a tool morning and night, and turned the crank in order to create enough space in my mouth for my adult teeth.  One of my most vivid memories from adolescence was the day I forgot to have my mom turn the key before I left for school, and I had to ask her to do it on my lunch break—we stood in the hallway outside my science classroom and I tried to think of anything else than the metal bars pushing the left side of my jaw further from my right.  It more of a powerful, dull ache than a sharp or searing pain, and I still remember the tingling feeling I’d get as my malleable bones started to adjust to their new position.

Thankfully, just two years later, I had Dr. Bunkers to thank for the glowing smile you all enjoy today.

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I’m not by any means an orthodontic expert, but having experienced the dreaded expander, I learned that progress in growing things—like making my mouth bigger—must be done gradually, and that discomfort is usually part of that growing.

Moving here to St. Louis last June was a much more dramatic sort of uncomfortable experience in my life.  It wasn’t a gradual change at all—one morning I woke up in North Carolina, and after a harrowing twenty-one-hour day, I fell asleep in Missouri.  The move toward feeling at home here was slow and uncomfortable.

The Church of St. Michael and St. George immediately felt right—I still smile when I walk through the Ellenwood entrance every day.  The transition to loving the rest of St. Louis was not so quick and so easy.  Of course, there were the weeks of 100+ degree heat that did not help matters, but I found the arrangement of foodstuffs at Schnucks bewildering , I had many false starts trying to find a new “perfect” latte here, and the roadmap of Durham that occupied the geographical portion of my mind was suddenly useless.  I was bereft of all the little comforts that made my life just a little easier and a little cozier in North Carolina.

It felt a little bit like a long summer day when you’re out in the sun for too long—you’re a little achy and dehydrated, and the bright rays are no longer energizing and refreshing, they’ve become tiring to you.  You wish you could hide from the sun, but here in St. Louis, everything was bright and new, there was nowhere familiar that I could hide and rest.

Since last June, though, I’ve grown.  I still don’t like the set-up at Schnucks very much, but I’ve found that no one else does, either.  I’ve found a new favorite place to enjoy a latte, and there are even a few restaurants that I love now, too.

One of the things I thought about over last summer while I was adjusting to a new place was how Jesus told his followers that this world was not their home.  We are Jesus’ brothers and sisters, we’re as princes and princesses in God’s kingdom, so we belong with God in Heaven.  The discomfort of living in a new and strange place reminded me that the whole world should feel a little bit uncomfortable to each of us.  All the time, church should feel like the most comfortable, most homey place in the world, and our malls, and our grocery stores, and our movie theaters should all feel a little bit off-kilter, a little bit uncomfortable.   Of course, we have to do some work to keep ourselves uncomfortable—to help us remember all the time that the point of all this is to grow closer to God, and growing tends to hurts a little bit.

How can we grow a little bit this Lent?  How can we purposely make ourselves a little bit uncomfortable in this world in order to make ourselves a little bit more prepared, a little bit more comfortable, for Heaven?

Jesus tells us in the Gospel reading[1] for today to give our money away, to spend time praying and getting to know God himself, and to fast, to give up things that keep us tied up in the immediate, practical things in this life.  So I wonder what it would look like to choose to move ourselves a little closer to Heaven and a little further from the way our lives look today.

A woman I know gave up her morning cup of coffee one year for Lent, and she said it was the most transformative Lent she’d ever experienced.  She didn’t give up coffee altogether, just that cup that she used to sit and stare over in the early morning in her kitchen.  She used that time to pray and read Scripture instead.

A young man I knew in high school gave up fighting with his sister for Lent, and it changed their whole relationship.  Once his sister knew that he wasn’t going to react with anger to her, she told me it wasn’t fun anymore, and she stopped egging him on.  Their truce didn’t last forever, but it changed their relationship.

These stories are snapshots into what God’s kingdom looks like—the world that God wants for us to live in is peaceful and loving and full of his presence.  We know this sort of world doesn’t just pop up around us, we have to take steps to make room for God’s presence and to shift the focus of our lives.

I wonder what might disorient you just enough to shift the compass of your life toward God.


[1] Matt 6:1 (NRSV) “Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven.

2 “So whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. 3 But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, 4 so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

5 “And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. 6 But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

16 “And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. 17 But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, 18 so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

19 “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; 20 but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. 21 For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

“be safe out there”

Has anyone ever said that to you? Someone, probably many people, probably your parents, has expressed their love and care and concern by wishing for you to “be safe out there.”
Isn’t that a common sentiment of mothers to their children? (whether expressed in exactly those words or not) It’s a wish for protection that the proclaimer cannot provide, an acknowledgement of the uncertainty outside the walls of the home, a desire for the hearer to be surrounded by the blessing of safety.
When I recently heard this sentiment expressed by a fellowship breakfast regular (that is to say, the mostly-homeless crew of 10 or 40 who gather for breakfast Monday through Friday at St. Joseph’s Episcopal Church in Durham) to another attendee, I was stopped cold.
It was the tail end of breakfast service, most people were getting up and leaving, or already had, and this man is one who usually helps to clean up by stacking chairs, wiping down tables and vacuuming.
He said, “Be safe out there” to a woman who held an infant. Some mornings when I’m running with my dog, I see her going to breakfast, pushing her stroller.
Throughout the day, I see a lot of the people with whom I share breakfast, waiting for buses, walking Ninth Street. “Out there” is the street, is downtown. Outside, in cold and heat and rain.
Friends of mine have recently had babies, and visiting them in their homes, I’m accosted with anti-bacterial gels before I cross the threshold. We talk in hushed tones, babies are changed into new outfits several times a day.
The mother and infant I know from breakfast have very different concerns. “Be safe out there” isn’t just “I love you”–which is what a patent might mean when speaking to offspring, or “don’t do anything stupid on your way home” –which is what one college student might mean, talking to another at the end of the night. “Be safe out there” is talking about much bigger, much more basic things here. If we have no sensible reason–because of where we live, how much food is in our cupboards, how easily we can bathe ourselves and our children, our access to electric warmth and coolness–to fear for our mortal safety, but our sister and her baby must face those questions daily, what luxury are we invoking when we wish each other “safety”?