I need to start with some language commentary. You may have noticed that in our announcements about this sermon it was titled “Hebrew Scriptures”, with “Old Testament” following in parentheses. Our bulletin announcement, further, referred to the “First Testament”. What is this all about? Do these labels matter? Of course they do.
I don’t use the term “Old Testament”. I am not comfortable with its implications and connotations. The term “testament” comes from the Latin testamentum, which, in Latin, comes from the Hebrew word for “covenant”. The Church has traditionally held that God made the first covenant with Israel through Moses, and fulfilled (or some would say ) replaced that covenant in Jesus. This can easily lead to a way of thinking about Hebrew Scriptures as outdated, “Old”, less relevant because they have been superceded by the “New” covenant. I simply choose not to use language that might imply this. For me, “Hebrew Scriptures”, or even “First Covenant” are more helpful in conveying respect not only for this collection of texts, but also for the living religion of Judaism, for which these books are not old, but remain sacred in revealing the truth of humankind’s relationship with God.
So back to the topic at hand!
The word Bible comes from the Greek ta biblia, which means “the books”. It’s a plural noun. The Bible, both Hebrew Scriptures and the Christian scriptures of the New Testament, are more like a library than a book. And they’re an incredibly diverse library. The books of the Hebrew Scriptures also include an incredibly wide range of kinds of writing: they include narrative, poetry, prayer, law codes, mythological tales, prophecy, short stories, and more.
The books of the Hebrew Bible were recorded – a number of them taking written form after existing for generations in oral tradition – over the course of more than a thousand years. (The books of the New Testament, by contrast, were composed within a span of less than a hundred years!)
What is included in the Hebrew Scriptures, and how it is organized, is an awfully complicated matter. Understanding the fine print on the differences that exist between religious traditions isn’t important, but knowing THAT the differences exist IS important . Here’s an example. Along with other Protestant denominations, our Bibles in the Anglican tradition follow the Jewish practice of including only those books written in Hebrew (although a couple of them include brief passages in Aramaic). Roman Catholic Bibles also include, in their Old Testament, six more books that were written in Greek. We call these “the Apocrypha”.
Another example: You may hear that we have 40 books in Hebrew Scriptures but that there are 24 in a Hebrew Bible: the material is the same, but we divide into separate books a number of writings that Jewish Bibles treat as one as.
This minutia is interesting for academics, but really doesn’t matter in a faith context. What matters is that the writings of the Hebrew Scriptures express the many ways in which the people of Israel sought to capture and articulate what they understood about the God – the God with whom they were (and continue to be) in relationship. They did so through symbols and stories, through myths and memories whose purpose was to instruct and inspire and unify the Community of Israel. Over the course of more than a thousand year of history that included much more struggle and hardship than it did peace and prosperity, Israel sought to maintain faith and sustain hope; they failed at living into their covenants with God as least as often as they succeeded. The writings of Hebrew Scriptures are the written expression of that dramatic and complex story.
And it is terribly important to remember that Jesus was born into that story and lived, fully committed to the wisdom and the faith of the Hebrew Scriptures.
So - are you ready for a whirlwind tour? Probably the best way to survey the contents of the Hebrew Scriptures is look at the books’ contents as they reflect the story of the nation of Israel.
The first written materials in the Hebrew Bible probably didn’t take written form before Israel was united as a monarchy under King David around 1000 BCE. At that time the priests and scribes began recording ancestral stories that had been passed along orally within the community for about two centuries. The final form of the first biblical books didn’t exist until centuries later, but the first building blocks were taking shape under David.
The first five books of Hebrew Scriptures are a set, identified as the Five Books of Moses or, for Jews, the Torah (which means “Teaching” or “Instruction”).
The first book, Genesis, explains beginnings, including the creation of the world (through two very different stories) and the primordial myths of the Flood and the Tower of Babel. The bulk of the book provides the narrative of God’s original outreach and covenant with the ancestors of the Jewish people. In the stories of Genesis, Abraham and Sarah and their offspring had quite a series of adventures, knew some moments of great faith and made at least as many bad decisions, but nonetheless survived their trials and tribulations with God’s help.
Exodus, Genesis’ sequel, picks up with the people of Israel thrust into slavery in Egypt and it narrates the call of Moses and his actions (with siblings Aaron and Miriam and, of course God’s frequent intervention) in leading the community out of Egypt, through the wilderness, and to Mount Sinai where Moses received, from God, the Law, the full terms of the Covenant between God and the people.
The rest of the Five Books of Moses – Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy – lay out in great detail the regulations that govern the life and practices for God’s people (including instructions for religious and domestic obligations of the community), as well as the further travels and trials of the people before their entry into the Promised Land, and Moses’ farewell addresses before his death.
The second section of Hebrew Scriptures contains historical narrative. The set begins with the books of Joshua and Judges, which together cover the conquest and division of Canaan and the years during which Israel functioned as a Tribal Confederacy before the establishment of the Hebrew Monarchy. These books tell about generations of repeated bloody conflicts with neighboring groups, followed by deliverance through God’s intervention, usually through the raising up of heroic leaders such as Deborah and Samson.
After the tribal period, Israel eventually established a monarchy during which, while the nation was not without continuing challenges and ongoing threats from other nations, there was at least a period of relatively greater peace and prosperity. The books of 1 and 2 Samuel recount the (largely troubled) reign of King Saul (accompanied by the prophet Samuel) and the ascendancy and early triumphs of King David, followed by his downfall as a result of his own wrongdoing.
1 and 2 Kings continue the saga, covering the succession of Solomon, David’s son, to the throne, and the significant accomplishments of his reign., including, the construction of the First Temple in Jerusalem.
These historical books continue and elaborate on a theme that began in the stories of Israel’s wilderness wanderings both before and after establishment of the Law at Mount Sinai. The theme is that of a cycle that the storytellers report that Israel lived out over and over again: it consisted of unfaithfulness – either because of the people’s anxiety and doubt, or by the people falling away from the covenant with God through inattention or selfishness – followed by hardship, followed by deliverance by God, resulting in renewed faith and commitment, after a period of which they would again fall away into unfaithfulness.
The most significant hardships in Israel’s story began as Solomon’s reign ended and the united nation split into two. The truth of “United we stand, divided we fall” was borne out for the people of Israel over the course of the 350 or so years while they lived as two separate states, Israel in the North and Judah in the south, under a series of kings. During this time, recounted in 1 and 2 Kings, the people repeatedly continued to fall away from their faithfulness to the Law, including turning to worship of other gods, and their conflicts with surrounding nations were escalating.
As the leaders and people turned from the covenant, prophets arose, repeatedly calling the people to return, as we remember in our eucharistic prayers. Elijah and Elisha’s stories are told in great detail in 2 Kings. Despite the prophets’ entreaties, Israel was brutally conquered by the Assyrians in 722 BCE. (The descendants of the northern kingdom, you’ll remember, are the Samaritans who feature repeatedly in the New Testament.) Less than 150 years later, in 586, the Kingdom of Judah fell to the Babylonians with the conquest of Jerusalem.
When Jerusalem fell, the leadership and priestly classes of the Hebrew people were taken prisoner and forced into exile in Babylon, a time remembered painfully in Psalm 137:
By the rivers of Babylon we sat down and wept when we remembered Zion.
The period of monarchy from David through the divided kingdom and Exile is summarized and recounted, again, in the books of 1 and 2 Chronicles. These are the last of the biblical texts specifically devoted to the community’s history, though the brief books of Ezrah and Nehemiah, which follow Chronicles, provide some details of the eventual restoration of the Jewish people to Jerusalem the surrounding lands of Judah. After the restoration, after the Babylonian Exile, the people of Israel were never again self-governed (until modern times). Assyrian and Babylonian rule were followed by the Persians, and later, the Hellenists and the Roman Empire.
Having told the story of the political fortunes and misfortunes of the people of Israel in the historic books, the rest of the Hebrew Scriptures include a variety of writings. In the order in which they appear:
The final collection of books in the Hebrew Scriptures are the teachings of the prophets, interrupted by three other brief texts:
In this last section of Hebrew Scriptures we hear from the prophets, including the major prophets Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel, and “the twelve” minor prophets. They preached before and during the Exile, interpreting to the people of Israel, often in God’s name and in God’s voice, the meaning of the events happening to the community, and foretelling what was to come.
They pronounced bitter and searing condemnation of the people’s sins and abandonment of their responsibility to their covenant with God. They passionately declared God’s displeasure and God’s readiness to abandon the people to the suffering their transgressions deserved. The prophets did not leave condemnation and despair as the final word, however. They reiterated God’s love and reaffirmed God’s mercy, promising restoration for those who return to God’s covenant.
The words and stories and images of these scriptures sustained the people of Israel through generations of turbulent history. They rescued the people from despair by providing a vision of a higher calling. They offered insight, direction, and hope, often doing so in absolutely gorgeous language.
The Hebrew Scriptures are the foundation of our own faith. Let us cherish them and let us continue to “read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest” all they have to offer.
Special Teaching Sermon on The Middle East: On a Flight From Cairo to New York With Isaac and Ishmael
I’ve been teaching, working, and traveling, with students and adults, in the Middle East for forty-five years. My experience has included working in churches in Jerusalem and Cairo, travel and study in Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey, teaching Arabic, and translating materials from Arabic into English, including a full length book by an Iraqi human rights lawyer on the concept of tolerance in Islamic thought.
In a moment I’ll describe an encounter I experienced with the sons of Abraham - Isaac and Ishmael - on a flight from Cairo to New York nearly twenty years ago. Of course, I don’t mean the actual sons of Abraham, but the eponymous ones: Abraham’s spiritual descendants: Isaac for Jews and Christians and Ishmael for Muslims. By the way, Ishmael’s name in the Qur’an is Ismail, a popular name for Muslim males.
We know from Genesis that both Isaac and Ishmael were sons of Abraham: Ishmael by a slave woman named Hagar, and Isaac by Abraham’s wife Sarah. Isaac, of course, outranked Ishmael because his mother was Abraham’s legal wife while Hagar was only a slave. Ishmael and Hagar were eventually banished. Tradition says they wandered in the Arabian peninsula and wound up in Mecca where their descendant Muhammad would many centuries later introduce the world to the religion of Islam.
And so was born the rivalry between the monotheistic religions that comes down to us to this day, a rivalry not only of religion, but also importantly a rivalry over the lands and resources of the Middle East. And, as Nine-Eleven reminded us, it’s a rivalry that has spread to include much of the rest of the world, even a flight from Cairo to New York nearly twenty years ago.
So, what about that flight from Cairo to New York? In the spring of 2004, I took a group of students to Cairo to participate in a Model United Nations conference. Model UN is an international organization that brings students together from all over the world. In 2004, the conference was held in Cairo. I’ve also led my students to Model UN conferences in Amman, Doha, and Lisbon. And, I’ve taken students to Istanbul to meet and discuss international affairs with Turkish students.
The Cairo trip began with sightseeing at the pyramids, the medieval Islamic monuments and markets in the Old City, visits to museums, and a boat ride on the Nile, all of this before the conference itself where my students debated the big international issues of the times with their peers from all over the world.
When it was over and we’d boarded the plane for the twelve-hour flight back to New York, I was looking forward to a very long nap in the air. While my group was seated together several rows up from me, my seat was in the middle of a row in Coach between two strangers.
It quickly became clear there would be no napping on that flight. I discovered I was shoulder to shoulder between two men whom I silently nicknamed “Ishmael” and “Isaac,” not those rival sons of Abraham in the Book of Genesis, but the Ishmael and Isaac of the religious conflict of our own times.
“Ishmael” was an Egyptian Muslim from Alexandria and “Isaac” was an American Jew from New York City. These were men whose hatred for one another quickly became loudly apparent. And so, there I was, shoulder-to-shoulder between two of the world’s oldest and most deeply entrenched hatreds.
When “Ishmael” and “Isaac” discovered who one another was, a shouting match erupted. Muslim Ishmael, leaning across me, yelled at Jewish Isaac, “I hate Jews; I’ve always hated Jews.” I asked him why he hated Jews. He yelled, “Because my father hates Jews and all my brothers hate Jews.”
The New York version of “Isaac” hurled similar epithets across me at his Muslim enemy on my left. I helped calm them down. However, no minds were changed that day. Isaac got up and moved away to an empty seat behind us. Ishmael and I didn’t speak for the rest of the flight. My attempts to foster at least some reconciliation and understanding that day ended in failure. Needless to say, I didn’t get the nap I’d hoped for.
After returning home, I tried to make sense out of that experience. I was drawn back to the Book of Genesis and to my first trip to the Middle East in 1979. On that trip, I’d visited the Palestinian West Bank town of Hebron, which Palestinian Arabs call al-Khalil. Traditions in all three faiths (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) say that Abraham, Sarah, and other patriarchs and matriarchs from Genesis are buried there in a cave called Machpelah. In the first century, King Herod the Great built a shrine over the cave.
When Abraham died, Genesis 25 says that both Ishmael and Isaac returned to the Machpelah Cave to bury their father – together!
Sadly, that spirit of mutuality was short-lived. Today, Israeli soldiers guard the tomb because there have been serious disturbances there, the worst, in February, 1994 when, during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, an Israeli-American physician opened fire on early morning Muslim worshippers inside the shrine killing twenty-nine and wounding 125. This incident typifies tribalistic animosities that seem bent on blotting out the memory of what happened there three thousand years ago when two brothers, who had become patriarchs in their own right, buried their differences long enough so that they could come together and bury their father. The Machpelah of Genesis was sadly as far away as I’ve ever felt it on that trip home from Cairo.
So, is religion part of the problem in the Middle East? History is, after all, full of holy wars, crusades, and jihads. Is religion responsible for these divisions? To the extent that religious extremists feel free to exploit and amplify the differences between peoples in the region as they compete for land and resources, then, yes, religion is part of the problem.
The late Israeli-American Rabbi David Hartman thinks monotheistic religions deserve a big share of the blame for the animosity and violence between people who really do have more in common than they acknowledge. He used to say, "The one god of monotheism is an indicator not of unity but of division between and among people. The message throughout monotheism is sometimes one of intolerance. When occupation and ownership of land become linked to monotheistic religion, the message seems to be, ‘There's only enough for one.'”
This is especially the case, Rabbi Hartman says, in the Bible. In the Old Testament in particular there is a deep sense of scarcity. Adam has two sons: Cain and Abel. Abel gets his father’s blessing; Cain doesn’t. Abraham has two sons, Isaac and Ishmael. Isaac gets the blessing, Ishmael doesn't. Isaac has two sons, Jacob and Esau. Jacob gets the blessing, Esau doesn't." There never seems to be enough for everyone (in the Old Testament at least).
Rabbi Hartman argues that if pluralism and inclusivism don’t replace exclusivism in the Middle East, then everything is going to be lost for everybody. Sadly, a portion of the exclusivism in the Middle East is being practiced by Americans, like my seat partner Isaac on that flight from Cairo: he belongs to that faction of evangelical Jews and Christians who believe that the Messiah will not come until Israel is a secure Jewish state and all challenges to Israeli sovereignty over all of Palestine are removed.
But, while religion may be part of the problem, it can also be part of the solution. To the extent that religion encourages people to bury their differences, as Isaac and Ishmael did when they buried father Abraham, it can be a powerful force for hope and change in the world. For every vengeful soul in the Middle East who chooses violence (and in spite of what we see in the media, the number is actually quite small) there are many more who have chosen the way of peace and are working hard to make peace happen. Ishmael and Isaac saw their pasts come together and intertwine at that cave south of Jerusalem. As their pasts intertwined, my hope is that eventually so, too, will their futures.
There are good reasons for holding onto that hope. Historically, Middle Eastern adherents of all three monotheistic sects have for the most part been good neighbors with one another: for millennia, they’ve attended one another’s worship services in the synagogues, churches, and mosques, and celebrated one another’s weddings, funerals, and other religious festivals together with mutual joy and good will.
I’ve worshiped in a synagogue in Jerusalem made up of an interfaith Jewish and Christian congregation.
I’ve known Muslims who routinely attend services or prayers of all three faiths: they go to mosques on Fridays, synagogues on Saturdays, and churches on Sundays.
During a sabbatical year in Cairo, I served on the clergy staff of the Anglican All Saints Cathedral under Egyptian Bishop Ghais Abdel Malik and his Provost, The Very Reverend Philip Cousins, now retired and living in his hometown of York, England.. Services were held in both English and Arabic. On Pentecost, to honor the many tongues spoken on the first Pentecost day, scripture readings were both in Arabic and English. Meetings of the clergy staff with both Egyptian and non-Egyptian clergy together, opened with all of us reciting the Lord’s Prayer in both English and Arabic.
The cathedral sexton was an Egyptian Muslim named Mustapha. His is one of the most revered nicknames of the Prophet Muhammad in the Qur’an: it means “the chosen one.” Mustapha put all of us to shame because he’d memorized the entire Eucharistic service and other large portions of the Anglican prayer book. What some might call doctrinally incorrect behavior included Muslim Mustapha coming to the rail and crossing himself before receiving the bread and wine. I’m reminded of those services in Cairo each time Heather or Molly says just before communion is distributed, “No exceptions!”
There are many examples of people of all faiths who as I speak are working tirelessly for peace in the Middle East. But, let me close by mentioning a personal and somewhat unusual experience. I spent two summers working on the archaeological dig at Tel Miqne, the site of the ancient city of Ekron, a Philistine city mentioned in First Samuel 17 in the story of David and Goliath. I made friends on that dig with a Palestinian Muslim college student named Talal Nasrallah. Talal lived in Gaza, just a few miles away.
To pass the time, Talal and I discovered we liked to sing rock ‘n’ roll oldies (in my late teens, I played in a rock band on the Eastern Shore of Delaware and Maryland. I still occasionally do public gigs with another veteran of ‘60s era rock bands). One of Talal’s favorite American groups was the Beach Boys. Never in my life did I expect a bond would be forged between an American Episcopal Priest and a Palestinian through singing Beach Boys songs together, but that’s what happened: “Isaac” and “Ishmael” singing rock ‘n’roll songs together while digging up biblical history on steamy hot summer days in Israel/Palestine! Go figure! God works in mysterious ways.
In today’s New York Times, British author Karen Armstrong says her understanding of religion has been influenced by the renowned medieval Muslim scholar and mystic Ibn al-Arabi (1165-1240). He says in his Fusus al-Hikam (“The Seals of Wisdom”) that he felt at home in all places of worship because no faith has a monopoly on truth:
He wrote, “Do not praise your own faith so exclusively that you disbelieve all the rest. If you do this, you will fail to recognize the real truth of the matter. God, the omnipresent and omnipotent, cannot be confined to any one creed, for he says, ‘Wheresoever ye turn, there is the face of Allah.’ (Qur’an 2:115).”
And with that, I want to close with a traditional Arabic blessing. It goes,
السلام عليكم ورحمة الله وبركاته
As-salaamu alaikum wa rahmatu Allahi wa Barakatuhu!
May the Peace, Mercy, and Blessings of God be upon you!
Today’s teaching sermon is focused on the daily office and daily prayer. I thought we might begin by exploring the role of prayer in our lives, share a bit of history about the daily office, and reflect together on how we might continue to grow in our prayer practice.
In her book, Beginner’s Grace: Bringing Prayer to Life, Chaplain Kate Braestrup suggests we need prayer in our lives. She writes:
"What it can do—what prayer, at its best and at our best, has always done—is help us to live consciously, honorably, and compassionately. Because I am not stronger, more self-sufficient, smarter, braver, or any less mortal than my forebears or my neighbors, I need this help. As long as prayer helps me to be more loving, then I need prayer. As long as prayer serves as a potent means of sharing my love with others, I need prayer." 2
Biblical scholar Walter Brueggeman, in his book, Prayers for a Privileged People, also emphasizes our need to be vulnerable and to connect to a Power greater than ourselves. He writes:
“Prayer is an act of openness to the One who sits on the throne of mercy. When we pray, we participate in the ultimate practice of humanness as we yield to a Power greater than ourselves. Our best prayers engage in candor about our lives, practice vulnerability, run risks, and rest in confident trust.” 3
Prayer is a sacred conversation with God. Whether it be individual prayer or community prayer, it has the power to offer up the most tender parts of ourselves to God, and in return we find ourselves better equipped:
…to praise the wonderful mystery of God;
…to discern a way forward;
…to discover the wisdom we seek;
…to persevere and renew our souls;
…to experience the healing power of God’s love in this world;
…to forgive ourselves and one another;
…to trust that we are all held in God’s loving embrace;
…to watch the beauty of God in our lives and creation.
Prayer is at the heart of what sustained and guided Jesus. Prayer would have shaped his early life; and he likely practiced the Jewish tradition of saying private prayers in the morning, at noonday, and in the evening. 1. On the sabbath, he likely would have partaken in the local synagogue’s liturgy of the word, and possibly would have attended a daily morning or evening prayer service.
After Jesus embarked on his public ministry, we routinely see him go off to deserted places to pray alone, in order to reconnect with God and revive his Spirit. (1:35; 6:46) He would often teach about prayer, affirming it really can make a difference, and reminding us that when we pray, we are to forgive others. (11:23-25). Because when we hold onto old wounds, they actually get in the way of our faith, our relationship with God, and even our connection with ourselves. The early Church took Jesus’ teaching on the power of prayer to heart, and in one of Paul’s earliest letters, he tells the Thessalonians to ‘pray without ceasing’. (5:17)
As early as the second century, the early Church had adapted the Jewish liturgies of community morning and evening prayer which included psalms, canticles, scripture readings, and some form of homily or instruction. 1 They also adapted the Jewish tradition of private prayers to mark morning, noon, and evening. By the time Constantine made Christianity the religion of the Roman Empire, these prayers became more formal and consistent across congregations.
Just as these congregational forms of ‘the daily office’ were being established, monastic communities were also developing their own forms.1 These two different forms of daily prayer coexisted for several centuries before melding together. Monastic communities have played a critical role in the development of these liturgies, including the Benedictine practice to stop and pray at eight intervals throughout the day.
Late in the middle ages, the daily office became the duty of monastics and clergy alone, making formal daily prayer inaccessible to the laity. When Thomas Cranmer created the prayerbook, he simplified the number of set times for prayer and published it in English, making daily prayer accessible again.1 Our current prayerbook, The 1979 Book of Common Prayer, features Morning, Noonday, and Evening Prayer, and Compline, as well as four briefer versions of each liturgy that are meant for individual and family use. You may remember that in May of 2020, we took a deep dive into Morning Prayer. Instead of taking a similar deep dive today, I’d encourage you to review that sermon on our website if you are interested in learning more about Morning Prayer. 5
I do want to lift up the handout of resources that the Ushers gave you, and for those at home, I promise it will be posted online with this sermon. The very first resource listed is a favorite - Daily Prayer for All Seasons. This resource is our Church’s effort to extensively modify and expand those four brief daily devotions for individuals and families in the prayerbook. It offers eight different liturgies for each liturgical season, in keeping with the monastic tradition to pray eight set times a day. We use it to begin Clergy/Warden meetings, and we are more grounded as a result.
This handout also includes:
All that being said, there are endless ways to engage in prayer. The prayerbook defines prayer as: “...responding to God, by thought and by deeds, with or without words.” 4
It can be as simple as saying a prayer before each meal. While it can be tempting to rush through a familiar prayer without much thought, I would encourage you to pause when you sit down to eat. Notice the beauty of the meal and the many hands that made it possible; appreciate the company you are eating with, or the space you are enjoying your meal. Give thanks with a formal grace or speak from your heart.
All this is to say, prayer is as much about intention as anything else. Being intentional in our prayer life, expressing gratitude for the small things, has a way of connecting us with the divine, creation, and our own sense of self. What matters is not how you pray, but that you find a way to pray each day. Just as you nurture relationships with a spouse, children, parent, friends, or siblings, take the time to nurture your relationship with God.
Maybe you feel called to keep a list of people or concerns that need prayer. I once had a seminary professor, of the American Baptist persuasion, who said in great seriousness ‘If you tell someone you’ll pray for them, then you better remember to actually pray for them.’ It seems silly, but it is so easy for us to assure a friend or loved one we’ll pray for them, maybe offer up a quick word to God, and then lose track of it. If you are interested in keeping this kind of prayer list - it’s easy - find an old notebook or start a list on your phone. If you are interested in praying for others as a part of your ministry with the church, speak to Molly or myself about getting involved with our prayer circle.
Lastly, I want to leave you with a prayer by Chaplain Kate Braestrup. She writes:
What is Prayer?
… Be awake to the Life that is loving you
and sing your prayer, laugh your prayer,
dance your prayer, run
and weep and sweat your prayer,
sleep your prayer, eat your prayer,
paint, sculpt, hammer and read your prayer,
sweep, dig, rake, drive and hoe your prayer,
garden and farm and build and clean your prayer,
wash, iron, vacuum, sew, embroider and pickle your prayer,
compute, touch, bend and fold but never delete
or mutilate your prayer.
Learn and play your prayer,
work and rest your prayer,
fast and feast your prayer,
argue, talk, whisper, listen and shout your prayer,
groan and moan and spit and sneeze your prayer,
swim and hunt and cook your prayer,
digest and become your prayer.
Release and recover your prayer.
Breathe your prayer.
Be your prayer.2
I hope as we depart this week, that we’ll each find a few minutes to reflect on our prayer practice, and one small way we might continue to deepen that practice. Amen.
1 The information in this paragraph is drawn from Marion J. Hatchett’s Commentary on the American Prayer Book, pages: 89-91
2 Braestrup, Kate. Beginner's Grace: Bringing Prayer to Life, Kindle Edition, page 9, 175-176.
3 Brueggemann, Walter. Prayers for a Privileged People
4 The 1979 Book of Common Prayer, pg 857
The Daily Office - Resources
Daily Prayer for All Seasons
This is a favorite prayer resource for Heather & Molly. The book offers brief sets of contemporary prayer for eight times during the day for each liturgical season. The themes are: praise, discernment, wisdom, perseverance and renewal, love, forgiveness, trust, and watch. You can purchase this book online, with a local bookseller, or download a free pdf: www.episcopalchurch.org/wp-content/uploads/sites/2/2021/01/daily_prayer_all_seasons_eng_final_pages_0.pdf
The 1979 Book of Common Prayer
We own a great many copies of the prayer book, and are happy to lend them to folks who would like to use them. They are kept in the right hand upper cupboard of the sound cabinet (unlocked). If you need help finding them, speak to the clergy.
A simple, easy to navigate web version of the prayerbook; ideal for desktops: https://www.bcponline.org/
Electronic Common Prayer
A version of the prayer book for smartphones or tablets. Find in most app stores.
Daily Devotions for Individuals and FamiliesThis may be found in the 1979 Book of Common Prayer, pages 136 - 140. It is a simplified version of the daily office. The Daily Prayer for All Seasons resource was seen as an expansion of these five pages.
The Daily Office:
Instructed Morning Prayer Sermon
You can read a sermon given outlining the Morning Prayer liturgy in detail that Rev. Heather gave in the early days of the pandemic. It is available on our website: https://www.saintsjamesandandrew.org/sermons/instructed-morning-prayer
The 1979 Book of Common Prayer
Consider trying out one of these sets of prayers from the daily office. If you want to start with something simple, try saying Compline in the evening. It has some of the most beautiful prayers in the entire prayerbook.
Digital Daily Office with Forward Movement
Forward Movement has put together a simple and fantastic digital format to engage in prayer Morning, Noon, Evening, or Compline. In addition to the liturgies themselves, they include the daily office readings, their forward day by day reflection on the day’s readings, and they even have an option to maintain a daily prayer list that is local to your device. You can also listen to Morning Prayer being led by another person on their site. https://prayer.forwardmovement.org/home/menu
If you are interested in reading the assigned readings for Morning Prayer or Evening Prayer, you will want to explore the Daily Lectionary:
Praying With Others
The pandemic has meant that thousands of faith communities have taken their worship online, and you can join other parishes for prayer Morning, Noon, Evening, or Compline. You might check out:
Prayers & Thanksgivings
Be sure to check out Prayers and Thanksgivings, which offers prayers for any occasion under the sun in The 1979 Book of Common Prayer, pages 810-841
by the Rev. Dr. Molly Scherm
This morning’s “teaching sermon” explores what those of us in “the Episcopal branch of the Jesus Movement” believe and do in relation to the end of life and the rituals of burial.
I don’t know whether you’ve noticed it, but in this sermon series we’ve been making our way through the Book of Common Prayer: we looked at Baptism and Eucharist, the Church’s primary and central sacraments, and then at the sacramental rites – confirmation, marriage, ordination, confession and healing. In the Prayer Book, these additional services come in the order in which we’ve looked at them, grouped together as “Pastoral Offices”. (One exception is that ordination services come under “Episcopal Services”, since they require the ministry of a Bishop.)
The last of the pastoral offices, or ways in which the Church supports and ministers to its members through the transitions and challenges of life, are Ministration at the time of Death and the Burial Office.
Let’s start with acknowledging that death is a hard thing to think about and talk about, for a variety of reasons. We all to want to live as long as we can – our lives are, after all, a gift from God, to be cared for and preserved. It is painful to lose those we love, hard to face the ways in which aging involves the loss of capacity for all of us who manage to live into old age, and really hard to see the suffering that often accompanies serious illness - painful both for the sick person and for those who love them. Death is scary in that we just don’t really know what comes after. And some deaths are simply tragic, especially when death involves a young person who has not lived a full life, or if death is sudden and unexpected.
The reality of the many ways in which death is difficult exists in a tension with what our faith teaches us about it. As followers of Jesus, we believe that death is not the end of life, but is, rather, a transition to another part of life in which we return to God, entering into a larger life than we can know or imagine now. We believe that the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ assures us of this.
Secular culture has popularized images of a heavenly afterlife to a ridiculous degree. The Book of Revelation speaks about pearly gates and streets paved with gold (Rev. 21:21), but the ways in which this symbolic and mystical image has been taken literally and expanded – we’ve all heard plenty of jokes about Saint Peter as gatekeeper with clipboard in hand - are not biblical and definitely not helpful.
What scripture does promise us is that God’s love surrounds us even as we pass away out of this life, and that beyond life in this realm we are set free into a closer life with our God, with Love itself.
Here’s some of what scripture offers:
Jesus assured Martha of Bethany, at the time of her brother’s death, that “I am the resurrection and the life; whoever who believes in me, though they die, yet shall they live, and whoever lives and believes in me shall never die.” (John 11:25-6)
Similarly, he assured the disciples, as he was preparing them for his own death, that “In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places… And when I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also.” (John 14:2-3)
Comfort is also found in Paul’s writings: he assures the Romans that “neither death nor life… will be able to separate us from the love of God.” (Romans 8:38-39), and in his wonderful dicussion Love, written to the Corinthians, Paul promises that “now we see in a mirror dimly, but then [we will see] face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall understand fully, even as I have been fully understood. (I Cor 13:12)
We believe these things, and yet, when death comes, we grieve. The Church, in its ministries, seeks to honor and balance both of these truths.
The Prayer Book actually offers a series of opportunities for prayer around the time of death. Ministration at the Time of Death (BCP 462-465), which is often referred to as Last Rites, is a brief service of prayers asking God to comfort the dying, to protect them from pain and evil, to pardon sin and grant them a “place of refreshment” and “give them joy and gladness”. It includes a brief litany to be prayed with loved ones who are present, as well as the Lord’s Prayer, and we anoint the person with the oil of chrism, the same scented oil that we use at baptism. The service includes what I think is one of the most beautiful prayers in our tradition, the prayer of commendation, which is also included in the burial service itself:
Into your hands, O merciful Savior, we commend your
servant. Acknowledge, we humbly beseech you, a sheep of your own fold, a lamb of your own flock, a sinner of your own redeeming. Receive them into the arms of your mercy, into the blessed rest of everlasting peace, and into the glorious company of the saints in light. Amen. (BCP p. 465)
Ministration at the time of death is a very precious, intimate, and privileged moment in ministry. The liturgy is ordinarily led by an ordained person, but it can also be offered by a lay person if a priest or deacon is not available. It is a tremendously powerful way to offer the concern of our hearts to God at the time of death. I have read it by myself when learning of a death I want to respond to but have not been present for, and have also read it together with family members who live far from a loved one who has passed away.
Following Ministration at the Time of Death in the Prayer Book are two additional short sets of prayers through which the Church can mark the processes of attending to death. “Prayers for a Vigil” (BCP 465-6) provides prayer for family and friends in the time between death and the funeral and, like Last Rites, expresses love and petition for God’s care for the one who has died. The Prayer Book also provides a brief liturgy for “Reception of the Body” (BCP 466-7), for use at the time the body is brought to the church.
In the Episcopal Church we now have a variety of funeral liturgies available. The Prayer Book offers two options for The Burial of the Dead – Rites I and II - and we also have an authorized alternative from the Enriching our Worship series; they all follow the same approximate format, but differ in the style of language. In a funeral service, hymns may or may not be sung, scripture is read, and prayers are offered both for the one who has died and for family and friends in their grief. The departed is often remembered with reminiscences by family members, and clergy may preach a homily. Holy Communion may be included. The service, if it is in in the church building, concludes with a Commendation of the individual to God’s care.
The final part of the service may follow directly after the first part of the burial rite, or it may be separated in time. During the Committal the body or ashes are placed in their permanent resting place – whether in the ground, at sea, in a columbarium, or otherwise – and again, prayers including the Lord’s Prayer are offered. It concludes with a dismissal based on the Easter affirmation:
Alleluia. Christ is risen.
Christ is risen indeed. Alleluia.
Funeral practices have changed in recent years, in large part because the pandemic has been a significant factor requiring families to adapt their expectations and their practices. For one thing, cremation has become much more accepted and commonplace, and it allows families to schedule services when it is convenient for those who need to travel. The limitations of safety protocols for indoor gatherings has resulted in many more families choosing graveside services, and those that Heather and I have presided over in the last couple of years have been lovely.
While restrictions on end-of-life rituals have made it difficult for some families to celebrate their loved ones as they might have wished, I think that the opening up of options has ultimately been a good thing. In comparison to other aspects of the Church’s life, our tradition allows broad leeway for personalizing the services that mark the end of a human life, and leeway is often called for as the individual needs, circumstances, and preferences of families can vary. As Heather and I work with families planning funerals, our focus is on helping the families move through and beyond their pain as they remember and celebrate the life of the one who has died.
I’m sure many of us have experienced the fact that the processes that follow death can be messy. While enduring a death can help us put things in perspective and bring out the best in us, deaths can also re-activate old family issues and conflicts. In our complex psyches, regrets, resentments and guilt can surface in unfortunate ways as we move through not only the religious rituals but also the other practical chores that accompany death, such as disposing of property. Whatever we can do to minimize the potential for additional hurt around times of death is something to strive for.
Which brings me to reflecting on implications for us here and now: (you know that Heather and I always try to offer things to think about and do as we leave our worship each week!) There ARE things we can do as we think about death.
It is not only a gift to those who love us but a personal responsibility for us to prepare for our own deaths, however little we may feel like doing so.
For one thing, it is really important to have a will that directs others in how we want our worldly assets used after our deaths. The process of making a will helps us to come to terms with our own mortality AND to think about what is important to us in the way we leave things behind. Making provision for distribution of our assets is not only an opportunity to provide for our families’ security, but also to be generous in charitable giving in the many places where there is need in the world.
Closely related to the importance of having a will is that of having advance health directives on record and having a health care proxy designated, a person who can make decisions for us if we are not able to express our wishes. Hopefully your health care provider has already had you complete these documents: if they haven’t, please take care of this soon.
I also urge each of us to do some funeral planning. It is not a morbid thing to do. It provides help to our family members who, after we pass away, will have plenty of things to take care of and decisions to make: providing them some guidance on how WE would like to be remembered in a funeral can make the process a little bit easier for them. Here at James and Andrew we have a form that reminds you of choices to be made for your funeral. You can take it home to think about, discuss it with your loved ones, and/or you can meet with one of us to talk about your wishes, and we can keep a copy of your completed form on file here for the day it is needed.
Our Faith Community Nurse, Kathryn Aubry-McAvoy, has also introduced us to a form called Five Wishes. It can be used as an official document that outlines what we would like the last stage of our life to look like. Kathryn tells me that she has numerous copies. I have completed it, and I commend it to you.
Taking care of these acts of planning is, in its way, an act of faith. It says that while we value our lives, we know that they will end, and we want to do what we can, now, to help end our lives responsibly and with love.
Amen. May it be so.
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