The roof work has begun.The scaffolding and walk boards are now populated with workers – some carrying debris to the drop points – some picking up and staging materials across the south face of the roof.It is kind of eerie in my office, suddenly there are shadows of these people moving to and fro, their voices easier for me to hear than the doorbell!
They begin work early but there is no way to escape the summer heat.They are completely exposed to the heat of the sun.I looked out my window when a break came.One young man was slouched against the brick wall, relaxing in what shade could be found.Even with his work gloves off his hands were black with grit and sweat.I suppose there is no point in washing up until the work-day is over.Looking at his hands I began to pray – for him and for all working in the heat and the dirt.
I ask you to join me in daily prayer for those who work on our roof – for the men and yes, the women who offer their working expertise to rebuild our roof.They are literally unseen, high above us but so present in their efforts and endurance doing this hot and dirty work.
Holy One, you guide our hands as we labor, as we work to build, create, and produce. We give thanks for the gift of strong bodies and astute minds that allow us to accomplish many great things. Lord, we pray that you surround them, the shadow of your protection guard them and their families from all harm as they work. Give to them assurance of income and provide for them all the resources, strength, and support that they need. Gracious God, you bless all of us in so many different ways. Shower all of your children working with your blessing and love. All this, in your holy name we pray. Amen.
Adapted from a prayer by Sarah Swindall, Pastoral Intern, Augsburg Fortress
Mercy is defined as compassion or forgiveness shown toward someone whom it is within one's power to punish or harm. (OED)
We pray to a merciful God.We know this because it is what Jesus taught.And Jesus taught this at a time when mercy was in short supply.Praying to a merciful God would have been unknown in the first century Roman Empire.Imperial gods were as the Greco-Roman myths tell us capricious and fickle at best, down-right spiteful when vexed - often treating humanity as mere pawns on the divine gameboard.Prayer was offered to appease the gods, not to heal the human heart.
Our scripture is a different story, one most often telling of human failing and divine forbearance and forgiveness. I have this conversation with Father David from time to time, wondering aloud if God knew from the get-go that humanity would regularly and consistently “blow it.”I mean we are barely a handful of chapters into Genesis when the problems start…
We pray to a merciful God.We pray to a God willing and wanting to forgive, reconcile, and redeem.I thought of this during the Sunday sermon, Father David’s word sent me to my bookshelf.Bryan Stevenson writes in his book, Just Mercy, of his work with death row inmates, Whenever things got really bad, and they were questioning the value of their lives, I would remind them that each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done.
Each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done.
Don’t know about you but many times I want to believe that more than I am able to.Surely, I am judged harshly based on my failings, my falling down and acting out of fear rather than love.Broken for sure.Beloved…?
Stevenson continues, In fact, there is a strength, a power even, in understanding brokenness, because embracing our brokenness creates a need and desire for mercy, and perhaps a corresponding need to show mercy. When you experience mercy, you learn things that are hard to learn otherwise.You see things you can’t otherwise see; you hear things you can’t otherwise hear. You begin to recognize the humanity that resides in each of us.
We pray to a merciful God.Thomas Merton wrote, we are bodies of broken bones.All of us.I wonder if this is what set Jesus apart, that he looked upon brokenness and saw beauty.He looked upon a wounded and dehumanized people and saw image-bearers.Mercy was in short supply in the first century.Let it be abundant in our time.
Our 2021 Lenten Series focused on the lament psalms - prayers offered to a faithful and merciful God in the sure hope of response. These are a few of the participants' personal psalms of lament.
Psalm 2021 – Steve Clark
1 My God, my Lord, have you forsaken us?
Why does this Pandemic continue to ravage this world?
2 O God, I have prayed many times for relief from this scourge.
Are you not listening to my supplications?
3 You are the Creator, God, through you all things were made.
Both all we see, and all we cannot see.
With this virus, you have created something unseen,
but we clearly see the suffering and death it hath wrought.
With your life-giving power, you can choose what to create.
Why, Lord, have you chosen to create viruses?
I am not worthy to question you, Lord.
Yet, here I am, asking why do you not end our misery?
This Pandemic has caused millions of deaths.
Many more millions have suffered debilitating illnesses.
Lord, I am thankful my health has been spared.
Even so, I remain separated from friends and family members.
How I yearn to hug my children and grandchildren!
How I long to trash the masks I have worn on my face!
How I long to sit in a pew at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church!
How I desire to partake of the bread and the wine!
And so I beseech thee once again, O Holy One,
to rescue your people from this worldwide plague.
In my prayers I will continue to praise you, Lord.
For you are my strength and my salvation.
Psalm of Lament – Sanford Eberly
O God of creation and song, always am I praising you with my voice. Please hear the supplications of my heart and send your Holy Spirit to guide.
For you are a loving God, slow to anger; quick to answer prayers. You send the sun and the rain; filling the rivers and streams, that cleanse and renew the earth.
Why..... is our world filled with anger and hate? The innocent brought down to death in the market place? With some leaders blinded by power, costumed in scripted words of concern. While wagging their tongues with pretty veiled lies, that deceive and sway many of your people. Unbeknownst to them playing upon their fears, ignorance and prejudices.
Please heal all your creation. Help us turn away from such wickedness. Open our hearts, minds and souls. Save us, fill us with your grace, truth and love. Make us your servant hands and feet in this world.
For you are a loving God. Sending Christ into the world showing us the way. Forgiving our sins, destroying death, giving life eternal. That we may delight in your presence. Know your blessings. Serve you all our days.
O God of creation and song, always am I praising you with my voice. You hear the supplications of my heart. Assurance, guidance, forgiveness, healing and truth are found with you. Hallelujah! Hallelujah!
Lament of the Frustrated – Rev. Sarah Ky Price
Why have the vipers entered into this pit with me again?
It seems so often that I pray to you, God.
I’m doing my best; I even try to pray for them.
I pray that their fangs do not penetrate beyond the superficial.
I pray that the blood they seek will not be mine.
And here they are again, piercing my skin I thought had thickened.
I bleed and I hurt and I shake my fist to you and say, “Why? Why?”
You answer me back in the quiet of my dreams
not so much with the answers I want to hear
but instead with reassurance in the passage of time.
I realize in my waking that the bites are not actually that deep.
I see that you’ve already bandaged my wounds with the kind words of others
whom you have blessed me with as companions on this journey.
And so, even here in the pit of my own frustration, I thank you.
And as I lick my wounds, I am learning.
I’m learning how to pray for the vipers, not just for myself.
I’m learning they are your creatures, too.
I’m learning how they feel threatened, hated, and hurt.
I’m learning when they lash out it isn’t about me.
Help me, God, to see them as you see them.
And give me kinder words next time
so that all of us may find our wounds being healed.
Gun Violence – A Lament
Dear God who makes the blind see, the deaf hear, the lame walk—
Dear God who changes minds, turns tables, and raises the dead—
Guns are killing the United States.
Atlanta, Boulder, El Paso.
Parkland, Charleston, Sandy Hook.
Our own Virginia Beach, just last week,
And Virginia Tech too.
A flash on the news screen, then gone
Replaced by the latest lone gunman,
Whose family had no clue.
Our leaders claim at our funerals
That death is the cost of freedom.
Because you do not step in, they think that you agree with them!
Hear our groaning, O Lord, and remember
You who hardened the heart of Pharaoh
Can soften the hearts of legislators.
You who emboldened Moses
Can embolden your Church to stand up
To say, “The freedom not to die
At the grocery store
Outweighs the freedom
To own a weapon of war!”
We will praise you for such transformation.
We will praise you for lives not destroyed.
Grateful voices will sing and shout that
God did not look away
Did not agree that weapons are worth it
And lifted this country from its bloody pit:
Allowing the grandmother to go to church
The child to school
The worker to work.
Praise the Lord!
Psalm of Lament – Karen Franklin
Good God! What must I endure? I’m drowning in a heaviness worse than anything ever experienced before. Pain, disillusionment rain down like hot, sizzling raindrops. I call out to You my God, but I can’t see you through the haze of my fear that you have abandoned me.
Century old cries of my people have wafted up to your ears louder than thunder claps. There in their pain you met them. You were that strong tower that covered then in their distress.
I am my ancestors- I am their tears their pain. Therefore You my God will meet me in my suffering and sorrow.
I raise my eyes through the haze and am blinded by your love and hear your gentle call. You alone know me and I will walk beside you. My heart joins in your song- bowing down to your greatness and faithfulness toward your people.
Last October, following the service in which I offered stewardship remarks, I was approached by a parishioner who observed that I had forcefully identified the reasons I remained at St. Mark’s and asked if I would now be willing to share the journey that had brought me to our church. I thought to myself, well, that won’t be happening. But here I sit, speaking to you via Zoom, wearing a white dress shirt–and sweat-pants. I didn’t think that would be happening either. So, with your permission, I’ll honor the parishioner’s request: the road to St. Mark’s. You will want to buckle up.
In 1973 I left graduate school, the dissertation more done with than done, returned to Richmond, took a job teaching in an Episcopal school, and joined an Episcopal church distinguished by its imposing architecture and historical associations. Wanting to get to know some of my fellow communicants, I made a personal commitment to attending coffee hour, every Sunday.
I am not a shy, retiring person, but I am reserved. I found it challenging to step into conversations with parishioners at least a generation older than I, who clearly had known each other many years, in some cases since childhood. So I would stand next to the coffee urn, smile, and try to look available. I was most often approached by parents of my students, hoping for an impromptu parent-teacher conference. The question then arises:in this overlapping work/worship world, did I feel at risk, vulnerable, being “other”? Not really, let me explain why.
The head of school who hired me left soon after I arrived, which I chose not to see as cause and effect. His successor was one of the most articulate, urbane men I have ever known; he was also perceptive, and kind. At the end of the year, he asked me to stop by his office to read and sign my annual review, which I did, handing it back to him across his desk. He told me I had made a good beginning. He then stood, walked around his desk, turned the other visitor’s chair facing mine, and sat. We were knee to knee, eye to eye. “This is a long-established Episcopal institution,” he observed. “It is a polite work environment. It is highly improbable that anyone here will ask about your private life. I urge you not to volunteer it. Do you understand what I am saying to you, Howard?” “Yes, sir, I do. Thank you.” My thank you was sincere because I understood what he was doing: he was trying to protect me. It was a job I had already grown to love and didn’t want to lose. I would keep the promise I made that day, and that job, for thirty-five years. At church, then, I assumed that what worked for one Episcopal bastion would work for another. I remained cheerful, deferential–and guarded. A decade passed.
One Friday a friend of a friend called and invited me to attend mass with him Sunday evening at the Cathedral. I thanked him, of course, but reminded him that I was an Episcopalian and that the Catholic mass is closed to non-Catholics. He replied impatiently that he knew all that. But this mass was different, he told me: it was for Catholics and Episcopalians. There was a Catholic priest and an Episcopal priest, and the mass was just for us, us guys. I had questions.
“The Episcopal priest, is he affiliated with any of the churches in Richmond?” Colin replied that he didn’t think so. The priest worked with the street people around VCU. “This mass, is it actually in the Cathedral?” I asked. “Not exactly: we are in the educational building next door. We use a classroom as our chapel.” “The Bishop of Richmond, “I inquired, “he’s aware that there is an ecumenical mass being celebrated on Cathedral property for the Boys in the Band?” “Yep. He’s cool with that.” And he was, which may explain why the first act of his successor was to vaporize this particular mass. Colin then added that, after mass, we would all go to an Italian restaurant. I was seduced by curiosity, company, and cuisine.
There were perhaps fifteen of us in the makeshift chapel. I held the prayer book for the kid sitting next to me who was so nervous he was visibly shaking. He had confided that it was the first church service he had ever attended. We progressed through the Liturgy of the Word, coming finally to the Passing of the Peace, which, in morning church, lasted twenty seconds: ten to smile and nod to the right, ten to the left. You can imagine my surprise when the Catholic priest stepped forward and hugged each of us, then the Episcopal priest hugged us, and then all of us were invited to hug each other. It was in the midst of this hug-fest that I experienced a shock of recognition.
When the service ended, the Episcopal priest came straight at me: “As I offered you the cup, I noticed you were crying. Are you all right?” “Yes,” I replied, “I was startled.” “By what? What startled you?” “I had not known what it would feel like to be fully accepted as a part of the body of Christ.” And so I learned to straddle: morning church for noble architecture, sung liturgy, and stimulating sermons; evening church for acceptance, companionship–and joy. Another decade passed.
By now I was living in the Museum District. One crisp, sun-filled March morning I decided to stroll to the church at the end of the street. It was my first visit to St. Mark’s. I remember the sincerity of the welcome; I remember walking to the pew where I still sit, when permitted. I assumed I wouldn’t know anyone. Yet, as I looked forward toward the lectern side, I recognized two profiles: a professor of British Literature at VCU, Lib Reynolds, and beside her the Episcopal priest from Sunday evening church, dissolved years before, Edward Meeks Gregory.
I greeted Pope--as he was universally known--following the service, and he told me he was a long-time member of St. Mark’s; he had even served as curate for almost eleven years. He then began to share with me what he loved about our church, and as he spoke, a sense of thanksgiving welled up inside me. I knew that my journey had come to an end: I was being allowed to come home.
There are excellent reasons why we should renew out pledges to St. Mark’s, even increase them, if personal circumstance allows. Obviously, no collection plates have been passed since last March, and so any increases in pledged income would be MOST welcome. When you are entering your pledge on-card or, preferably, online, I ask you to consider three factors. First, we have four exceptional priests and a committed, highly capable staff. I won’t belabor the obvious. Second, we have a long-range plan, parts of which have had to be deferred–not abandoned. We know who we are, we know where we are going, we know how to get there, and we will. Third, St. Mark’s is a relatively small church, but our compassion and generosity have a meaningful impact on the community we serve: we make a real difference in the lives of many people, for whom St. Mark’s is assuredly not closed.
To these three I will add a fourth: “Love is our tradition,” which was adopted during our 150th anniversary as part of the church’s rebranding process. “Love is our tradition” is a marketing tagline; it also happens to be true. When I joined St. Marks, twenty-seven years ago, love was already our tradition. It still is. In this Spirit-driven, righteous work, St. Mark’s has not followed: we have led.
An acquaintance, a member of one of our larger conservative churches, recently informed me that St. Mark’s is simply too welcoming: we welcome people who have left other Episcopal churches, other denominations, other religions; we even welcome the “unchurched and uncertain.” I have given his criticism of St. Mark’s considerable thought and leave you with the following.
I propose that St. Mark’s change course, that we become more selective, that we only welcome those people–for whom our Lord died. And if they come to us hurt and in pain that we hold them fiercely until they are healed. Then we hold them forever.
Why St. Mark’s? Why continue to be an active member in Florida?
St. Mark’s has been my church family for over 20 years.
From the first time I came to St. Mark’s I felt like I had found my place.
St. Mark’s, the building, has been a place of solace for us. St. Mark’s, the leadership, has been beyond supportive of us throughout all of life’s challenges. St. Mark’s, the congregation, has offered us countless opportunities to be part of something bigger than ourselves.
Our departure to Florida, although planned, was expedited due to COVID-19. No chance to say goodbyes. No easing into our transition. This time of COVID brought about changes in how we all gather. And In this change, worshipping via ZOOM became a welcomed, though unintentional consequence, of the times. For us, it is a gift.
I draw great comfort from continuing relationships, seeking guidance, worshipping with family, and being able to see the faces of those I have come to love and cherish. St. Mark’s is our church home. It is where we were married. We hope that we will be able to continue this virtual connection for a long time yet to come.
Our hearts remain full of the love that St. Mark’s offers.
The final book penned by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., is entitled, Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community? We find ourselves more than fifty years later grappling with the same issues. Will America be chaos or community?
As I experience the senior years of life, I find myself thankful for the oasis that God has provided. Every July I would gather with many from all over the country for the Samuel Dewitt Proctor Conference sponsored by the Children's Defense Fund. Under the wise leadership of Marian Wright Edelman, one of the matriarchs of the modern Civil Rights Movement, we gather to see children assembled in Freedom School sessions while the adults learn about social activism in practical ways. One of the most touching memories occurred when our Morning Devotion session concluded with time set aside for us to call and leave messages of support with our senator and congressional representative for child-friendly, community building legislation.
As an Episcopal priest I see among many congregants the willingness to address and support racial harmony for the first time in our nation's history. I must admit that I was much more than bewildered when I sensed God's calling to Richmond. I was even more stunned when I sensed the same leading to priesthood in the Episcopal Church.
Events over the last six years have continued to confirm that I am just where I need to be living and serving. My work at St. Mark's and St. John's churches has provided opportunities to share about race and steps toward understanding. The dissonance that is the national opus needs a loving and grace-giving conductor to lead the way. Those of us who comprise the orchestra need our instruments tuned to the clarion call to respect the dignity of every human being.
In keeping with the hopes of assisting in promoting peace, I share the following:
Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community? by Martin Luther King, Jr.
Waking Up White: And Finding Myself in the Story of Race, by Debbie Irving
The Cross And The Lynching Tree, by James Cone
Lynched, by Angela Sims
Song in a Weary Throat: Memoir of An American Pilgrimage, by Pauli Murray
The Cross and the Lynching Tree: A Requiem for Ahmaud Arbery, produced by Trinity Church, Chicago, sermon by The Rev. Dr. Otis Moss III
Backs Against the Wall: The Story of Howard Thurman, produced by Journey Films, may access through PBS
King in the Wilderness, HBO Documentary on King's final years, produced by Taylor Branch
There are countless additional resources to glean from as we move forward to finally be the America in which the worth of every human being is respected. Our history has been rooted in the antithesis of the Gospel message of love. We are the hearts, lives, and voices that can and must change that narrative.
Book clubs as well as discussion group moments of dialogue over shared information can begin to change the compass of our lives, individually and collectively. Even in our time of social distancing we can find ways to reach out, learn, as well as grow together.
Do not underestimate the reality that you can make a difference. MLK wrote, Racism is a doctrine of the congenital inferiority and worthlessness of a people. The lunacy of racism and its toxic, dream destroying fruit must be uprooted. Awareness, education, and maintaining the willingness to learn are key. Let us maintain hope even in the midst of challenge.