Several years ago, I concluded that my spiritual life felt narrow and stuck. While I was heeding the Holy Scriptures, I did not pay sufficient attention to God’s older book, namely Creation. One way in which I set out to resolve this problem involved the Hubble Space Telescope.
I acquired a thick book of breathtaking photographs of deep space. Most days I devoted time to reflecting on one of these Hubble photos, gradually making my way through the collection. This was a leisurely activity and a transformative one. Repeatedly I remembered that I was gazing at an unimaginatively vast expanse of creation far more unknown to humanity than known. These photographs also involved looking back in time, since the light from astronomically distant objects travels for a very long time to reach earth, even though nothing travels faster than light. Repeatedly I pictured myself as moving through these immensities on a planet rotating around a particular star in one tiny section of creation.
The Hubble Space Telescope helped my spiritual life by reminding me, through gorgeous photos, of the splendid infinities that surround us.
Today’s Kalendar commemorates St. Matthew, who was a tax collector. It seems that taxes and their collection have never been popular. This was especially the case in Galilee. When Jesus called Matthew from his customs table in the village of Capernaum, He was doing something very unpatriotic. The tax collectors were agents of Roman colonial rule and so they were seen as traitors and cheats. Jesus then did something just as offensive—he accepted Matthew’s invitation to dinner. According to the customary rules of pollution avoidance, Jesus should not even be talking to Matthew, much less reclining with him and his friends in a celebratory meal, all dipping their fingers into a shared platter of stew, tearing pieces of pita bread from a common loaf.
What was going on? Jesus had reached out to Matthew in generous love and acceptance, crossing conventional boundaries of respectability, and Matthew responded with love and generosity in return. He became a disciple and invited his friends to meet Jesus. The people Matthew knew were also tax collectors and so Jesus was dining with a whole group of sinners.
That’s it. That’s how it works, even now.
Jesus reaches out to us in love that crosses all possible boundaries and limits, and we are given the opportunity to respond to His generous acceptance with love and acceptance of our own, inviting those we know to join us in sharing a meal with Him—a foretaste of the great Messianic banquet in heaven. It doesn’t matter to Jesus that we too are sinners, as were Matthew and those he knew to invite for a meal. Jesus dines in love and celebration with us today just as He did so joyfully with Matthew and his friends long ago.
Today the Church celebrates the Feast Day of Hildegard of Bingen, a multi-talented individual who left behind a legacy of writings, song and study of nature.
Hildegard was born around 1098. When she was about 3 years old, she began having visions. Most often, those visions were of light – the light of Christ. As she put it in her later years, “From my early childhood, before my bones, nerves and veins were fully strengthened, I have always seen this vision in my soul … The light which I see thus is not spatial, but it is far, far brighter than a cloud which carries the sun. I can measure neither height, nor length, nor breadth in it; and I call it ‘the reflection of the living Light.’ And as the sun, the moon, and the stars appear in water, so writings, sermons, virtues, and certain human actions take form for me and gleam.”
Moved to a convent at age 15 or so, she embarked on mysticism and study. Her studies included theology, music and nature. Her life’s work ultimately resulted in three major publications, incorporating her theological visions of “the voice of the living light.” Her surviving music, mainly monophonic (one melodic line) chants, totaled more than any other Middle Ages musician – 69. And her works on nature, including properties of 213 healing herbs, survived, sparking the creation in modern times of Hildegard Networks, dedicated to holistic, natural healing.
In later life, she founded two abbeys, at Rupertsburg and Eibingen. She insisted on an all-female abbey to her Abbot. When he denied her, she went over his head – and eventually got her way.
Hildegard died in 1179. Today, we can give thanks for her theology, her music and her commitment to healing through natural remedies.
Today is an Ember Day. This takes some explaining.
Ember Days are three days which occur four times a year. They are the Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday after St. Lucy’s Day (December 13), Ash Wednesday, the Day of Pentecost, and Holy Cross Day (September 14). Their name comes from a Latin phrase meaning “four times.” These times (originally three) were associated with sowing, harvesting, and vintage, when people prayed, fasted, and gave alms. The four times became occasions for the ordination of deacons and priests. They remain so today, although ordinations take place on other occasions as well.
Whether at Ember Day services or not, please intercede for those seeking ordination and those helping them discern their vocation as well as for all the Church’s ministers: lay persons, bishops, priests, and deacons.
Almighty and everlasting God,
by whose Spirit the whole body of your faithful people
is governed and sanctified:
Receive our supplications and prayers,
which we offer before you
for all members of your holy Church,
that in their vocation and ministry
they may truly and devoutly serve you;
through our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ,
who lives and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.
Today’s Kalendar recognizes this as Holy Cross Day, also called more broadly within Christianity “The Exaltation of the Holy Cross.”
This feast commemorates the 4th C. discovery in Jerusalem of what was then believed to be the Cross of Jesus, during excavation beneath a Roman temple that had been built on the hill of Golgotha in the years after the Roman army had destroyed the old city of Jerusalem. Ever since its finding this wood has been preserved and venerated as the True Cross, with small pieces of it distributed around the world. We have a fragment of it here in our parish, used in adoration of the Cross on Good Friday.
Historically the Cross was an instrument of cruel execution by torture. Yet it has been redefined in Christian understanding. It is carried in procession as a sign of triumph—God’s power to bring life out of death. Venantius Fortunatus, the last of the classic Latin Christian poets and 6th C. Bishop of Poitiers, speaks of it this way in the hymn we sing in each Holy Week, Pange Lingua Gloriosi: “Faithful Cross above all other . . . sweetest wood and sweetest iron, sweetest weight is hung on thee.” The following stanza goes so far as to portray the Cross in tender images of maternal care:
Bend thy boughs O Tree of Glory!
thy relaxing sinews bend;
For a time the ancient rigor
that thy birth bestowed, suspend;
And the King of Heavenly Beauty
on thy bosom gently tend!
(V. Fortunatus. English translation, J. M. Neale)
For us the Cross is no longer a symbol of degradation and death but of God’s capacity in bringing forth love and life from within the midst of the most terrible circumstances that humans can face. The Cross is a sign of hope for us now in our present troubles, as it has been for our forebears in all the generations preceding us in the Church.
Let us never forget the victims of what can be considered the single deadliest terrorist attack in human history.
Four hijacked airliners, 19 years ago on this day, crashed into the Twin Towers in New York City, the Pentagon in Arlington, Virginia and a field in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, resulting in the death of 2,996 persons and the injury of over 25,000 persons.
In remembering them, we condemn acts of terror. We affirm our humanity, which no evil will take from us. We also cherish the memories of those torn away from us in the midst of life.
And, we express our trust in a God of mercy, in Whose hands our world, despite appearances, is held and Who, through the chaos and destruction that we cause, is calling us Home.
Today we remember Alexander Crummell, priest, academic and nationalist turned abolitionist who left a lasting mark on churches in Washington, D.C.
Born in March 1819, he grew up in Upstate New York, where he felt the call to be a priest. Turned down for admittance to General Theological Seminary, he sought theological training elsewhere, and was ordained a priest in Massachusetts in 1842.
At first, he pursued nationalism – encouraging Blacks to return to Liberia to form a homeland. After 20 years of living in Liberia, he returned to the United States and focused on the fight to abolish slavery. His writings and preaching were a great influence on Marcus Garvey, Paul Laurence Dunbar and W.E. DuBois.
In 1872, he was called to Washington, D.C. to minister to St. Mary’s Mission in Foggy Bottom. He became known as a Missionary at Large to Black Episcopalians. Within a year, his congregation, and three Sunday schools, grew, and the idea of an independent Black church grew along with it. Funds were raised to create St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, the first independent Black Episcopalian church. Created in 1875, it moved to the building it still occupies, on 15th St. NW, in 1876. The building was designated a historic landmark in 1976. Both St. Marys Foggy Bottom and St. Luke’s are active churches today.
Father Crummell served as St. Luke’s rector until his retirement in 1894. He died on September 10, 1898. One of the readings for his Feast Day is James 1: 2-5: “My brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of any kind, consider it nothing but joy, because you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance, and let endurance have its full effect, so that you may be mature and complete, lacking in nothing.” Good words for us to live with and by in this day and age.
A helpful custom is to have a prayer corner in your living room, bedroom, or elsewhere in your home. If you do not have one already, consider setting apart such a place in a visible way.
The focal point of the prayer corner is one or more sacred images. These can include an icon, a picture, a crucifix, or a cross. They may be original works or reproductions. Often an oil lamp or candle burns in a safe location nearby. A small plant or floral arrangement recalls God’s glorious creation. Furniture near the prayer corner should allow for comfortable kneeling, sitting, or standing as you find appropriate.
A generous space should be available for books such as the Bible, Book of Common Prayer, Hymnal, and other devotional resources.
If you burn incense during your prayer time, provide safe space for a thurible, charcoal, matches, and the incense itself.
If live or recorded music is part of your personal prayer practice, include whatever instruments, recordings, or scores you need.
Your prayer corner will be a standing invitation to draw near to the Holy One who always welcomes us.
Today is our national holiday, Labor Day. Originally intended to honor manual labor it’s now an occasion for recognition of all kinds of work.
The Hebrew Bible is ambivalent about work. In chapter 3 of Genesis, physical toil is considered a punishment for Adam and Eve’s sin, as they are banished from the Garden of Eden. Later in the Bible the importance of manual work is recognized:
Sirach (Ecclesiasticus) 38:27-32
So it is with every artisan and master artisan
who labours by night as well as by day;
So it is with the smith, sitting by the anvil,
intent on his ironwork;
He sets his heart on finishing his handiwork,
and he is careful to complete its decoration.
So it is with is the potter sitting at his work
and turning the wheel with his feet;
he is always deeply concerned over his products,
and he produces them in quantity.
All these rely on their hands,
and all are skilful in their own work.
Without them no city can be inhabited,
Yet they are not sought out for the council of the people,
Any kind of work, well done, has dignity and worth. But it also holds the potential for obsessive over-emphasis—workaholism. Healthy work and rest balance each other. Genesis says that God rested from the work of Creation on the seventh day. Jesus went apart from his mission of healing and teaching for restorative times of prayer and rest. St. Benedict’s rule for his monasteries enjoins prayer and work in alternation during the day—“Ora et labora.”
Sadly, even Sirach notes that although the artisan’s craft skill supported the life of the city, manual labor’s dignity was not always recognized—artisans were “not sought out for the council of the people.” This is still true today. “White Collar” has more prestige than “Blue Collar.” Salaried labor has more prestige than hourly wage labor. To counter this a colleague of mine, Mike Rose, has written a wonderful book called The Mind at Work. It illustrates narratively the intelligence and skill involved in Blue Collar labor, showing this for waitresses and auto body shop workers, among others. (His mother was a waitress.)
All work has value, and also the potential to be a curse. Benedictine balance between prayer and work seems to be the best course for all of us—ora et labora. Let us pray today for all workers, in the words of the collect appointed for Labor Day in the 1979 Book of Common Prayer:
Almighty God, you have so linked our lives one with another that all we do affects, for good or ill, all other lives: So guide us in the work we do, that we may do it not for self alone, but for the common good; and, as we seek a proper return for our own labor, make us mindful of the rightful aspirations of other workers, and arouse our concern for those who are out of work; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
The Epistle for this Sunday is St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans.
As Paul does in so many of his Letters, he asks his audience to greet and welcome his friends. Paul is very generous in recommending his friends to those to whom he is writing.
Romans is often regarded by scholars as Paul’s greatest Letter. It was certainly one of his boldest. Unlike many of his other Letters, it was addressed to an audience he had not met before. He was hoping to visit, and wanted to impress the Romans with his knowledge and his love of Christ Jesus.
Phoebe of Cenchreae was chosen to deliver this important document from Corinth, where it was written, to Rome – an awesome responsibility. She was well known in Cenchreae, a seaport about nine miles east of Corinth. And she was on her way to Rome for business, probably either legal or official business. To have business in Rome, and be selected for the honor of delivering Paul’s letter, she must have been a well-respected personage. Paul bids the Romans to welcome her, in Romans 16: 2: “I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a deacon of the church in Cenchreae, so that you may welcome her in the Lord as is fitting for the saints, and help her in whatever she may require from you, for she has been a benefactor of many and of myself as well.”
Today, our church commemorates Phoebe of Cenchreae. The Collect for this day reads:
Eternal God, who raised up Phoebe as a deacon in your church and minister of your Gospel; Grant us that same grace that, assisted by her prayers and example, we too may take the Gospel to the ends of the earth; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, One God, for ever and ever. Amen.
The Rev. Frederick Erickson, a retired university professor,