Last Sunday after the Epiphany: shining through

The closer we come to the core, the center of the gospel, the more clarity and the more mystery we encounter. On the one hand, the story is straightforward. A child’s board book would show Jesus and the disciples dusty and tired, wiping sweat from their brows as the come to rest at the summit. Another page would have Jesus shining bright, two shiny-shadowed men beside him, the astonished disciples wiping sleep from their eyes. Peter thought-bubbles booths, tents. A loud cloud descends and speaks with the voice of God. Then, with a turn of the page, all is back as it was at the beginning, and the men start down the mountain.

It seems beyond much doubt that something strange happened when Jesus took three of his disciples up a mountain about halfway through his ministry. Something sort of straightforward as the story goes; but there are many questions left unanswered.

Such as: how did the disciples know who these two strangers were, who had appeared either side of Jesus? Why jump straight to the conclusion that this is Elijah, and this one Moses? What do we make of the detail that he and his brother disciples were weighed down with sleep? Was this a vision, or a dream, or an objective happening, or something else, of a category we have yet to understand?

One way of framing the question might be to ask not what Peter saw, but how he saw it.

A couple of weeks ago, a young person asked me, “How will we see things in heaven?”

Not, “What does heaven look like?” or “What will we look like in heaven?” He gestured around the room: “You see how we see everything around us. Will we see things in the same way in heaven?”

Which is a much more interesting way of looking at it.

We talked back and forth a little bit about what we might mean by heaven, and how we might know how it works, and we stumbled across the phrase, “heaven on earth.”

You know those moments when the light breaks through, when the voice from heaven rivets your mind into place. Those moments when the mundane is transfigured, and the sacred shows itself clearly. You can see back through creation into the heart of God. Or if not that far, at least you can see the crack on the wall where the light might shine through.

Those moments are what we call heaven on earth.

The next day, I was with a group of much older individuals, all living in a place they hadn’t necessarily chosen to be, in circumstances that they had never planned for themselves. I asked them, “Where did you last see heaven on earth?” One woman replied, “Here.” I looked around at the bare, institutional walls, the contraptions everywhere, reminders of human frailty and decay. “Here?” I asked her. “Yes. Everyone who works here is here to take care of us. They care for us.” Heaven on earth. A different way of looking at things.

The young person and I talked about practicing spotting heaven on earth, about noticing when we were able to see it, strengthening our ability to find it, to glimpse it, taking down the clues of what brings it closer to our senses. The theory being that if we practice, we might find that we see it more readily, and come a little closer in our everyday lives to seeing things as we would see them in heaven: transfigured.

Of course, that elder saint then reminded me that I have far too little practice; in her vision of heaven around her, she saw far further than I ever had.

If we had been on that mountaintop, slumbering with the disciples, which of us would have seen what Peter saw, or heard what he heard? I wonder if I have had sufficient practice to see God’s glory even when it is shining me full in the face.

Of course, Lent, beginning this week, this Wednesday, is a time to practice seeing clearly, through the eyes of repentance, the lens undistorted by sin, undistracted by the world, to see the undisguised image of God, shining through.

We’ll do a couple of Wednesday soup suppers, as usual. We’re going to space them through Lent, and use the time to undertake a couple of service projects, ones that can be done sitting down, around a table; always a little piece of heaven. And we’ll take a couple of trips out, to the Art Museum; for a contemplative run (I am interested to find out how that works. Breathing and contemplation go together beautifully; heavy breathing and contemplation? We’ll see). We’ll take a trip out to volunteer at our local hunger center, and anywhere else that will have us.

We talked just briefly last week about the program, Growing a Rule of Life, which is being undertaken across the diocese, and across the world, by those wanting to nurture their relationship with God and the world this Lent, who want to practice seeing heaven on earth. If you take a book, you can use the program on your own, starting on Wednesday. There’s a link to sign up for daily video prompts, which relate to the questions in the book. You can also choose to come together, on Tuesday nights at 7pm, or on Sundays after church, to view the videos and share your progress, your insights and visions.

We will practice in any way we can seeing with the eyes of heaven; finding heaven on earth. Because when we declare on Ash Wednesday that we are but dust, and to dust we shall return, we tell the truth. But we know that there is more to life than the earth can contain. We have seen the mountaintop. We have glimpsed the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ; and it is our light in dark times, and our joy in times of celebration: heaven on earth.

Amen.

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Unseasonable

On a bridge, blue hat;

on a log, red glove; breaking 

winter, discarded 

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Postscript

… I mentioned in last night’s homily that the fate and faith of the Dorchester chaplains brought to my mind the musicians of the Titanic, and their own cords of friendship.

Grave

A hair’s breadth from panic,

taut, trembling disguised as vibrato,

bravado; the young men drawn

together as with one accord, buoyed

by the rising air, and the falling:

morendo.

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The Dorchester chaplains: friends of God

Homily for Evensong at Trinity Cathedral, Cleveland

A website dedicated to the memory of the Dorchester chaplains describes a fine detail:

Petty Officer John J. Mahoney, tried to reenter his cabin but Rabbi Goode stopped him. Mahoney, concerned about the cold Arctic air, explained he had forgotten his gloves.

“Never mind,” Goode responded. “I have two pairs.” The rabbi then gave the petty officer his own gloves. In retrospect, Mahoney realized that Rabbi Goode was not conveniently carrying two pairs of gloves, and that the rabbi had decided not to leave the Dorchester.”

In Holy Women, Holy Men, we read of the heroic actions of the four chaplains of the Dorchester, a converted cruise ship redeployed to carry US troops from New York to Greenland in the midst of the Second World War.

A day from shore, the ship was torpedoed by a German U-Boat. In the confusion and panic that ensued, only two of the fourteen lifeboats were launched.

The four chaplains moved among the men, assisting, calming, and passing out life jackets … to those forced to jump into the freezing ocean. Having given up their own life vests to save the lives of the soldiers, the chaplains remained on the aft deck, arms linked in prayer until the ship sank, claiming their lives. Two hundred thirty men were rescued from the icy waters by other ships in the convoy. Many survived because of the selflessness and heroism of the four chaplains.

George Fox, a Methodist minister. Alexander Goode, the Rabbi. Clark Poling, Dutch Reformed. John Washington, Catholic priest. It would be foolish to attempt to find words that would outmatch the example of their actions.

But then the same could be said of the gospel. “Greater love has no one than this, that a person lay down their life for their friends,” said Jesus, and the words barely skimmed the surface of the Incarnation, the work of the Messiah, the crucifixion and its consequences; that life given over completely for the sake of God’s friends, the creatures whom God loves.

 

When I read the stories of the four men on the Dorchester, the image that stayed with me was of them standing arm in arm, praying as the ship went down, holding on to one another. They were heroes not only to the men that they saved that night, but they were the most essential creatures to one another: friends. They helped one another, they held one another.

And my mind kept sliding towards another image, of the band playing on the deck of the Titanic as it, too, slipped beneath the icy north Atlantic. Such love that bound those eight young men together; their shared love of that mystery by which simple changes to the vibrations of the air around the ear can bring comfort and catharsis, music. Would one have stayed, have played, if not for the others?

Teresa of Avila wrote of her friends, her companions in what she titled The Way of Perfection:

When one of you is striving after perfection, she will at once be told that she has no need to know such people – that it is enough for her to have God. But to get to know God’s friends is a very good way of ‘having’ Him; as I have discovered by experience, it is most helpful. For, under the Lord, I owe it to such persons that I am not in hell …

Friends can make a man braver than he would otherwise be. They break open our hearts. In their incarnation, we see glimpses of God.

Even Jesus needed, named and claimed as his friends his companions on the way.

 

Last week, I was in London for a short while, staying at a Christian guest house, a very friendly place, where they served us breakfast. Guests were assigned to communal tables by room number. Now, it may seem a small thing to surrender one’s breakfast time to the common life, but for a raging introvert, being sent to sit with a table of random strangers is a high-wire of terror. But I survived.

And half an hour later, breathless and bruised amongst the hulking mass of humanity working to heave itself into the sausage-skin carriages of London Underground at rush hour, there was one face in the crowd, my new friend from the breakfast table, able to communicate courage across the crush:

“You’ll be ‘right.”

It is never wasted to share our humanity with one another.

 

Most of us, God willing, will not be called to the heights of heroism; yet each of us can do immeasurable good by reaching out the hand of friendship, by standing arm in arm with one who is afraid, or perishing, or persecuted; by praying with those in the shadow of death; by affirming the joy of the fortunate.

There were nine hundred and two men aboard the Dorchester that February night. Two hundred and thirty were rescued. Six hundred and seventy-two died in the north Atlantic ice water. War is hell, and that night, hell had frozen.

The chaplains knew that it was not their task to save everybody; but to love. To love God, to love God’s children aboard this sinking boat; to love one another.

Whether or not they knew the teachings of Teresa – and why a twentieth-century Rabbi would have studied a medieval Carmelite nun is a fine question; whether or not they knew the teachings of Teresa, that they should ignore the virtuous voices that say that God is enough, no need for other friends, still by good human and godly instinct they clung together, to warm one another’s hearts and courage. As Teresa said, “I owe it to such [friends] that I am not in hell.”

Whether or not they had the words of Jesus in their minds – that there is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends – they all knew those other commandments of God: be not afraid. Love one another.

Amen.

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Year C Epiphany 4: bread and stones

It is a curious thing that so many of the people whom Jesus meets want very quickly to kill him.

He has only just begun his ministry, after the baptism in the River Jordan; after the forty days of desert fasting and devilish temptation; delirium. Within sixteen verses, he has returned from the wilderness full of the power of the Spirit of God. He has taught in the synagogues, being glorified – glorified – by all. He has proclaimed the good news of the day of the Lord, and all spoke well of him, and wondered at the gracious words which proceeded out of his mouth, and halfway through the sixteen verses they said, “Is this not Joseph’s son?” And by the end of the paragraph, Jesus, by his own words and teaching, has led them to attempt a lynching (Luke 4:21-30)

This is something of an aside, but last weekend, some of us participated, one way or another, in the program from Trinity, Wall Street: Listen for a Change. We heard Presiding Bishop Curry preach. We listened to Michelle Norris from NPR and the race card project. We sang songs of freedom and of praise and of sorrow. We heard from Nicholas Kristoff and Kelly Brown Douglas and an impressive gathering of saints. They were not always easy to listen to. We were challenged to listen, for a change, to something we might not have chosen to hear. We were challenged to listen for a change; and we will be determining ways of listening further as the weeks go by.

I was struck enough by Kelly Brown Douglas’ challenge to download her latest book, Stand your ground; black bodies and the justice of God. She has many wise words, but this, I think, gives some clue as to what was going on with Jesus on that hilltop.

Jesus’ identification with the lynched/crucified class is not accidental. It is intentional. It did not begin with his death on the cross. In fact, that Jesus was crucified signals his prior bond with the “crucified class” of his day.

All spoke well of him, and they claimed his as their own: “Is this not [our] Joseph’s son?” And he taught in their synagogues being glorified – glorified – by all.

The thing is that Jesus has just come from the desert and from the devil. When he was in the wilderness, he was tempted sorely: “physician, heal thyself.” Assauge thy hunger. Turn these stones into bread. And he was tempted with promises of power and glory, and he answered, “You shall worship the Lord your God.”

As Jesus read from the scroll in the synagogue, presenting the proclamation of God’s mercy and loving kindness, he heard their adulation, their adoration. It would be so easy to turn stones into bread, to accept an exalted status as the local boy elevated to stardom; a celebrity preacher. To be glorified. But he had heard those whispers before, in the wilderness; and he knew his answer.

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives, and recovery of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed.

As Elijah was sent to the widow and her sickly son, and Elisha commissioned to heal the foreigner, the leper, so Jesus knew his call to the lost and the lonely, the despised and the dispossessed. He heard the call of the crucified class. He could not reach them from the pedestal upon which his people wanted to set him in stone. Indeed, the more deeply we need him, the more depth he has plumbed to reach us.

What does this mean, for a parish like Epiphany, for people like us?

We heard a sobering story at our recent Annual Meeting. We have tightened our belts, and still we feel the chill wind at our backs, the demands of money, of dollars and cents, of a balance sheet teetering, unbalanced.

And then I read this: William Stringfellow quoted in an article by Chris Hedges about the seduction of the church by the temptation to make bread out of stones (he doesn’t put it that way, but it’s what he is talking about: the first temptation).

Stringfellow wrote,

The premise of most urban church work, it seems, is that in order for the Church to minister among the poor, the church has to be rich, that is, to have specially trained personnel, huge funds and many facilities, rummage to distribute, and a whole battery of social services. Just the opposite is the case. The Church must be free to be poor in order to minister among the poor. The Church must trust the Gospel enough to come among the poor with nothing to offer the poor except the Gospel, except the power to apprehend and the courage to reveal the Word of God as it is already mediated in the life of the poor. When the Church has the freedom itself to be poor among the poor, it will know how to use what riches it has. When the Church has that freedom, it will be a missionary people again in all the world.

This is not a call to romantic naivety or monastic poverty, but it is a call to remember our roots, in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, who threw off the temptation to make bread out of stones, to stand on a pedestal and preach to the adoring crowds; who slipped away to heal the widow, the leper, to bless the child, and embrace the untouchable. Who did it all not for his own sake, but for ours.

When the Church has the freedom itself to be poor among the poor, it will know how to use what riches it has. When the Church has that freedom, it will be a missionary people again in all the world.

The more freedom we find to identify ourselves with the crucified class, the more closely we find ourselves following in the footsteps of Jesus. And God is with us.

In the story that we hear of Jeremiah’s call, the prophet argues with God,

“Ah, Lord God! Behold, I do not know how to speak, for I am only a youth.”

But God has already given the answer:

“Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you. … Be not afraid, for I am with you to deliver you.” (Jeremiah 1:4-10)

We may not plead weakness, or ignorance; we may not stand on our dignity, nor protect nor presume upon our fine reputation and family history; certainly, we may not plead poverty to avoid the call of God to proclaim God’s good news to the poor, to the captive, to the oppressed; that God loves us all, no exceptions.

In his same book, out of Harlem, Stringfellow writes,

If the mere Gospel is not a whole salvation for the most afflicted men, it is no comfort to other men in less affliction.

In other words, how dare we whisper that the Gospel is not enough? We are called not to make bread out of stones, but to feast on every good word that comes forth from the mouth of God, and to share our bounty. That is our work. That is our mission. That is our call. And God says to us,

“Before I formed you in the Shore Center I knew you, and before you were built I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to Euclid and to the nations. … To all to whom I send you you shall go, and whatever I command you you shall speak. Be not afraid then, for I am yet with you, to deliver you.”

Amen.

______

Kelly Brown Douglas, Stand Your Ground; Black Bodies and the Justice of God (2015)

William Stringfellow, My People Is The Enemy (1964)

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Birth Mother

God, whose womb broke
the waters of chaos,
gave birth to creation;
whose breath stirred the earth,
air for our words, spoken
first in wonder, and want,
our lungs newborn
crying out of
bewildered love.

Prayer Writing Workshop – Diocese of Ohio, Convocation 2016

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Disappointment and other stories

I am on a plane flying up the east coast of Britain. Soon, we will make a left turn over Scotland into the Atlantic (more precisely, I hope, over the Atlantic) to New Jersey. By way of the frozen north,  will make my transfer home to Cleveland.

When I told people I was going to surprise my father for his 80th birthday, many of them translated my destination back to me as “home”; but I have not lived in the house that my father owns, and my homing instinct is held by my husband, and my children, and my cats.

And that is part of it, part of why, faced with last week’s east coast storms, and the disruption and dislocation of travel that they occasioned, I would not give up my journey to Wales, nor trade it for another, less significant moment in time. I told my father that it was because of my stubborn streak that I held on the phone and returned to the airport, more than once, that I would not give in, go home. The trip was a surprise; he need never know if I didn’t make it; he need not be disappointed.

Disappointed: there’s a word that sets the spirals of parents and children in aspic, in resin, preserved for future scientists to examine under the microscope of therapy and inappropriate curiosity.

We do not communicate as well as we might. It is not the fault of either, as such, but of distance and time zones and work and want; we are both found wanting. There has never been a break between us, but a gentle cracking, crackling in the reception of our messages, the thoughts of our hearts, so that somehow they are never clearly broadcast, or received.

And so the ridiculous gesture, made larger than life by the onslaught of storms, the slings and arrows of outrageous weather; the action that speaks more loudly than the words in a birthday card; the pathetic offering of myself on a damp doorstep, rendered almost heroic by the trials to make it happen, by my stubbornness.

It is only love that is so stubborn, in the end. Ambition, duty, fear will fade in the face of a more persistent power, whether it is the weather, or the intransigence of an airline agent; it is the kernel of restless love, lodged under a heart, that will out; that will not give up and go home; that will not be disappointed.

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