Sunday, February 28, 2010

2 Lent


February 28, 2010

Genesis 15.1-12,17-18; Psalm 27; Luke 13.22-35

Our readings this morning are really loaded readings, aren’t they? They’re chock full of images. As well it should be—we’re in Lent and everything is pointing forward—forward toward Holy Week, forward toward Good Friday, forward toward the Cross, and forward to that point beyond the Cross—to Easter morning. But today, on this Second Sunday of Lent, we are confronted with this reading from the Hebrew scriptures—a gruesome reading if there ever was one—and then this Gospel reading about Jerusalem .

First, let’s take a look at the reading from Genesis. In it, we find God making a covenant with Abram (soon to be called Abraham). God commands Abram to sacrifice these different animals, to cut them in half and to separate them.

Strange enough. But the really strange part of the reading is the smoking fire pot and the flaming torch passing between the pieces. If we don’t know the back story—if we don’t understand the meaning of the cut animals—then the story makes little sense. It’s just another gruesome, violent Old testament story. But if we examine what covenant is all about, then the story starts taking on a new meaning.

Covenant of course is not a word we heard used often anymore. In fact, none of us use it except when talking about religious things. But a covenant is very important in the scriptures. A covenant is a binding agreement. And when one enters into a covenant with God, essentially that bound agreement is truly bound.

In the days of Abram, when one made a covenant with someone, it was common practice for that person entering the agreement to cut up an animals and then to stand in the middle of the cut-up pieces. Essentially what they were saying by doing so was: “let this happen to me if I break our covenant.”

What we find happening in our reading this morning is that it is not Abram standing in the midst of those cut-up animals. Rather it is God. God is saying to Abram that if I ever break this covenant with you let happen to me what has happened to these animals. God is saying to Abram: “my word is good. If this relationship between you and I breaks down it is not I who breaks the covenant.”

As Scot McKnight writes in 40 Days Living the Jesus Creed: “What appears to us as gruesome was normal for Abraham; what was great was how graphic God got in the act of promise.”

Then, we come to our Gospel reading. The part of this story that caught me was how the Pharisees came to tell Jesus that he was in danger from Herod. Or rather, I should say, I was taken with Jesus’ reaction to this news. He is not concerned at all over Herod or even the danger that he himself is in. His concern is for Jerusalem—for the city which, no doubt, was in sight. His concern is for the city he is about to enter and in which he knows he will meet his death. As he does so, Jesus does something at this moment that really is amazing. He laments. He uses words similar to those found in the lamenting psalms. He uses poetry.

“Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!”

It is beautiful. And it is powerful. It’s incredible poetry. Knowing what he knew—knowing that in Jerusalem he will be betrayed and murdered—Jesus laments. He knows that what essentially is going to happen in Jerusalem is what happened while Abram slept. In Jerusalem, God will once again stand in the midst of a shattered body and say to God’s people (as McKnight puts it): “I will remain faithful. My word is good.”

Lamenting is one of those things we don’t like to think about as Christians. After all, it is a form of complaining. And we don’t like to complain. In this part of the country, we find people who might face bitter winters and harsh summers, might make their way through floods and droughts, but who don’t ever complain much. We, for the most part, shrug our shoulders and soldier on. And when it comes to our relationship with God, we certainly never think about complaining to God.

But the fact is, although we find it hard to admit at times, we do actually despair occasionally. Even if we might not actually say it, we sometimes secretly do find ourselves crying out in despair, saying, if to no one else than ourselves, the words from our psalm today:

“Deliver me not into the hands of my adversaries.”

It’s good, honest language and it’s good to be honest about those negatives feelings we feel occasionally. We sometimes feel like life is too much for us. We sometimes get angry at other people. And we sometimes get angry at ourselves. And, as difficult as it is to admit, we sometimes get angry at God. We sometimes don’t understand why God puts before us strange displays like cut up animals and then walks in the midst of them. We sometimes don’t understand why we sometimes feel like the cut-up animals. Sometimes it is hard to love our enemies. Sometimes it is probably the hardest thing in the world to pray for people who have hurt us or wronged us. Sometimes it is hard to love ourselves. Sometimes it is hard to pray when everything has turned against us.

So, what do we do in those moments? Well, most of us just simply close up. We put up a wall and we swallow that anger and we let it fester inside us. For the most part, we tend to deny it.

But what about those feelings in relationship to God? Well, again, we probably don’t recognize our anger or our pain or our fears before God nor do we bring them before God.

And that is where Jesus, in today’s Gospels, and those lamenting Psalms come in. It is in those moments when we don’t bring our fear, our anger and our frustration before God, that we need those verses like the one we encounter in today’s Gospel and Psalm. When we look at what Jesus is saying in today’s Gospel and what the psalmist is saying today’s Psalm, we realize that, for them, it was natural to bring everything before God. It didn’t matter what it was.

And I think this is the best lesson we can learn from our Gospel reading today. Jesus is letting us see his sadness and his fear. Jesus is letting us see the fear he has in knowing that he, in a sense, has become the sacrifice that must be cut in two as part of the covenant God has made with us. In fact, Jesus lays it all out before God and us. He wails and complains and lays himself bare before God. He is blatantly honest in his lamenting.

The fact is: sometimes we do despair and fear. Sometimes we do want to pray to God,

“Hide not your face from me…”

It is in those moments, that it is all right to complain to God. It is all right to vent and open ourselves completely to God. Because, the important thing here is not how we are praying or even what we are praying for. It is important that, even in our fear over the future, in our pain, in our despair, in our horror at the gruesomeness and violence we find in this world, that we come to God.

We come before God as an imperfect person, full of insecurities. Take what it is hurting you and bothering you and release it. Let it out before God. Be honest with God. Even if your anger is directed at God for whatever reason, be honest with God. Rail and rant and rave at God in your anger. God can take it. And what you might sometimes find in those moments of complaining and ranting is that the words coming out of your mouth are not ugly, bitter words at all.

But sometimes the words coming out of your mouth in those moments of despair are beautiful poetry. Sometimes, even in those moments, God takes our angry, bitter words and turns them into diamonds in our mouths.

See what we find in this morning’s Psalm. After all that complaining, we find the Psalmist able to sing,

“O tarry and await the LORD’s pleasure;
be strong, and he shall comfort your heart; wait patiently for the Lord.”

See. Diamonds.

So, when we pray these psalms together and when we come across those scriptures full of violence that might take us by alarm, recognize in them what they truly are—honest prayers before God. Let us follow the example of Jesus, who even in the face of his betrayal and death, even in the face of his sacrifice, was still able to open his heart and his soul in song and poetry. More importantly, let us, as Jesus himself did over and over again in his life, pray those psalms when we are afraid or angry or frustrated. Let the Psalms help us to release our own anger to the God who loves us and knows you more completely than anyone else.

In the shattered, cut-open pieces of our lives, God, as a bright light passes back and forth. In that “deep and terrifying darkness” God appears to us as a light. All we have to do is recognize God in that midst of that darkness. And in doing so, all we can sometimes do is open our mouths and let them the poems within us sing out to our God.



Sunday, February 21, 2010

1 Lent


February 21, 2010

Luke 4.1-13

In our Gospel reading for today, we find a three-fold confession that essentially gives us a frame-work for this Lenten season. We find Jesus repudiating the Devil’s temptation with some strongly worded quotes from Scripture:

“One does not live by bread alone”

“Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him”

and

“Do not put the Lord your God to the test.”

At first glance, we might find them a big vague—at least in relation to our regular day-to-day life. But let’s look more closely at each of these confessions.

First, we hear that we do not live by bread alone. One of the things I think most people find so hard to grasp—especially those of us form a more Protestant background—is this conception of fasting and abstaining from certain foods. This season of Lent is the prime time for us to look long and hard at our eating practices. For the most people, we simply eat without giving a second thought to what we’re eating and why. Certainly we have doctors who tell us this is one of the leading causes of a good many of our health problems in this country. When we realize how high the rate of obesity and related illnesses are, we know that food is a major factor in our lives.

In the face of that, this quote from Jesus resonates. In the dessert, the devil tempts him. Jesus has been fasting and is no doubt extremely hungry. Imagine, the devil seems to say to him. You have the power. Turn these stones into bread and you can eat. And Jesus could have done it. But Jesus knew that this was the time for him to abstain from food. This was the time to remind himself that what gave him sustenance was not the bread that goes into his physical body, but rather what sustained him spiritually.

When we look at issues like obesity and eating disorders, we realize that there is often a psychological reason for our abuse of food. We do eat for comfort. We do eat ph6yscailly thinking that it will sustain us emotionally. A time of fasting is a time for us to break that habit and to nudge ourselves into realizing that what should be sustaining us spiritually is the spiritual food we receive from Jesus.

“Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.” Here, Jesus, having been alone in the desert, with no one around, is feeling a certain level of loneliness no doubt. At the whim of the elements, he was feeling, no doubt, powerless. And so, the temptation—a temptation of absolute power. A power to not only worship something material, but the temptation to do amazing feast so that he could be worshipped for his “tricks,” so to speak rather than for who we really was.

Here again is a major temptation for us. We all have at times, yearned to be more than who we are. We have all fantasized about being famous, about having people fall at our feet and adore us. We have all thought about what it would be like to be noticed—truly noticed—when we enter a room. We are all susceptible to self-centeredness, to that charming belief that the world revolves me—the individual. And, to be fair, from our own perspective, it certainly seems like that’s the case, doesn’t it? I mean, after all, who knows us better than we ourselves? We are the only ones we are present with all the time. We know what our thoughts are, what our true feelings are. We know the good and the bad about ourselves, more so than anyone else.

But Jesus again nudges us away from that strange form of self-idolatry and reminds us that there is actually someone who knows us better than we know ourselves, who knows our thoughts better than we do. Rather than falling to the self-delusion of believing our worlds revolve around ourselves, we must center our lives squarely and surely on God.

Finally, we are warned not to put the Lord our God to the test. We’ve all done this as well. We have railed at God and shaken our fists at God and bargained with God. We have promised things to God we have no intention of truly keeping. We have all said to God, “If you do this for me, I promise I will [insert promise here].”

Again, like the previous temptations, this one also revolves around self-centeredness and selfishness. This one involves us controlling God, making God do what we want God to do. This one involves us treating God like a magic genie or a wishing pond.

The realization we must take away from this final temptation is that, yes, God does sometimes grant us our prayers and wishes. Sometimes God does do exactly what we wish God would do for us—even despite that fact that we more often than not do not fulfill the promises we made. Oftentimes, we forget the deal we made once we got what we asked for.

But what we fail to realize in all of this is that those moment sin which God does grant us the answer to prayer we requested, it is only purely out of God’s goodness and God’s care for the larger outcome. It has nothing to do what we do. God does not care with little acts of gratitude that only appease our own selfish understanding of why things are.

We cannot manipulate God and make God do what we want. None of us are in the position to do that. And if we had a God that we could do that to, I’m not certain I would truly want to serve that God.

These are the temptations we should be pondering during this Lenten season. When I said earlier that these confessions of Jesus are the basis for our understanding of Lent, it really is. Each of these statements by Jesus are essentially jumping off points for us as we ponder our relationship with God, with each other and with ourselves during this season.

So, let us carry these confessions of Jesus close to our heats in these days of Lent. Let them speak to each of us in our temptations. Let them nudge us out of any self-centeredness that may come upon us. And let us realize that in all things God in the person of Jesus is truly the center of our lives, dwelling there in our midst.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Ash Wednesday


February 17, 2010

2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10; Matthew 6.1-6,16-21
When a Roman was made an Emperor, a simple proverb was spoken into his ear. Momento mori, they said to him—which means “bear in mind that you will die.”

Today—Ash Wednesday—is a time for me to preach about a subject I actually enjoy to preach about. Now I know that my confession to do might label me as a bit morbid (which those who know me know I have a tendency to be sometimes), but I do like to preach about momenti mori—or remembrance of death.

In the day—we’re talking the Medieval and Renaissance day—it was common practice for people to keep some kind of momenti mori around—a reminder of death. Often, that was a human skull- a real human skull. Of course, when you think of it, what makes a better reminder of death than a skull? In those days, one was encouraged to look at the skull as one would look into a mirror, realizing that what one was looking at was really themselves. To some extent, as morbid as it might seem, I think it wouldn’t hurt us to think about and ponder such things in our own lives.

In our lives, we do go about oblivious to death. We go around as though we are invincible, that we are eternal, that this moment in which we are living will last forever. As much as we might wish for that and hope for that, the fact is, it is not the case. We don’t realize that we are bones and ash essentially.

This service this evening is really, in a sense, our Momento mori. In this service we are reminded in no uncertain terms that one day each every person in this church this evening will stop breathing and will die. It’s sobering, but it’s what we are reminded of this evening and throughout this season of Lent. We will stop breathing. We will die. Our bodies will be made into something that will be disposed of—either by burying in the ground, or by being cremated.

Today I had my seventh funeral since December. In these last few months I have presided over embalmed bodies and cremated bodies. And doing so certainly puts into perspective the fact that we are all physically disposable. With cremation so prevalent these days, our momemto mori is not so much a human skull anymore. Our momento mori is nowadays an urn of ashes.

This was driven home to me eight years ago in a very clear way. Eight years ago this coming Sunday, I was diagnosed with cancer. I can tell you that that Lent was one of the most difficult Lents of my entire life. But it was also, I have to say, one Lent in which the real meaning of this season was driven home for me. As I went through the shock of diagnosis, the emotional and physical roller coaster of treatment, I found myself thinking a lot about the fact that I will one day die. I thought about things like the disposition of my body.

And I thought about after that. I thought about where I was going and what that place toward which I was going was going to be like. I thought about my relationship with God, about how faithfully (or unfaithfully) I had followed Jesus in my life. And I thought about Jesus’ own encounter with his mortality in the Garden of Gethsemane.

Sometimes, as horrible as experiences like cancer are, they can be gateway events. They can be events in which we find ourselves opened up to a new understanding and new perspectives on the world and our relationships with God.

That essentially is what Ash Wednesday and the season of Lent are all about. It is a time for us to stop, to ponder, to take a look around us and to take a long, hard, serious look at ourselves and our relationship with God. It isn’t easy to do. It isn’t easy to look at where we’ve failed in our lives and in our relationship with others. It isn’t easy to look at ourselves as disposable physical beings that can so easily be buried or burned to ashes. It isn’t easy to imagine there will be a day—possibly sooner than later—when life as we know it right now will end. It isn’t easy to shake ourselves from our complacent lives. Because we like complacency. We like predictability. We like our comfortable existence.

However, we need to be careful when we head down this path. As we consider and ponder these things, we should not allow ourselves to become depressed or hopeless. Yes, our mortality is frightening. Yes, it is sobering and depressing to think that the life we, at this moment, find so normal and comfortable will one day end.

But this season is Lent is also a time of preparation. It is a preparation for the glory of Easter. And in that way, also, our lives as Christians also lead. It would be depressing and bleak if the skull was the end of our story. It would be sad and sorrowful if all we are reminded of when we ponder the urn is the finality of this life. It would be horrible if we were not able to see the momento moris of our lives as gateways to something larger and more wonderful.

But for us, death is a gateway. Death does lead not to eternal non-existence, bur rather to eternal existence. The darkness of death leads to the glorious light of Easter. What I like about Lent is that it shows us that, even though we are living in the glorious light of Easter, bestowed on us at our Baptism, it’s not always light and flowers and happiness all the time.

If our Christianity faith was only that, it would be a frivolous faith. It wouldn’t be taken seriously because it would ignore a very important part of our lives.

But Lent shows us that, as Christians, we are to reflect about where we have failed—where we have failed God, failed others and failed ourselves. And it reminds us that death—death of our loved ones and our own deaths—is simply a fact of life. It is a part of who we are and what we are. It forces us to realize that we are wholly dependent upon God for our life and for what comes after death.

Of course Ash Wednesday is not a time to disparage our bodies, to believe that our bodies are some kind of prisons for our souls. If we truly believe in the Resurrection, if we believe that Jesus was God Incarnate—God in the flesh—then we cannot believe that somehow the spirit is all-good and the flesh is all-bad. All we do on this Ash Wednesday is acknowledge the fact that we are mortal, that our bodies have limits and because they do, we too are limited.

There is a beautiful poem—one of my all-time favorites-written by probably one of my favorite poets, Robinson Jeffers. In many ways it has a very healthy attitude to the body and the death of one’s body. Jeffers wrote this following the death from cancer of his wife, Una, in 1950.

The poem is titled “Cremation”

It nearly cancels my fear of death, my dearest said,
When I think of cremation. To rot in the earth
Is a loathsome end, but to roar up in flame — besides, I am used to it,
I have flamed with love or fury so often in my life,
No wonder my body is tired, no wonder it is dying.
We had a great joy of my body. Scatter the ashes.

“We had a great joy of my body.”

Hopefully, we can say the same of our bodies when the time comes for us to put our bodies aside. So, it’s not a matter of denying our bodies or seeing our bodies as sinful, disgraceful things. Rather it is simply a matter of not making our bodies our treasures.

Jesus tells us in tonight’s Gospel not to lay up our treasures on earth, in corrupting things, but to store up our treasures in heaven. A lot of us put more store in our bodies than we need. We sometimes don’t take great joy in our bodies at all, but rather abuse our bodies or become inordinately obsessed with our bodies or in what used to be called “the way of the flesh.” This time of Lent is a time to find a balance with our physical selves as well as with our spiritual selves. That is really the true meaning of Lent.

Where are our treasures? Are they here, in the corruptible, or in they in the incorruptible? This is the question we must ask. This is the question we should be pondering throughout this season.
So, as we head into this season of Lent, let it be a holy time. Let it be a time in which we ponder whatever momento mori we might have in our lives. Let it be a time in which we recognize the limitations of our own selves—whether they be physical or emotional or spiritual. But more than anything, let this holy season Lent be a time of reflection and self-assessment. Let it be a time of growth—both in our self-awareness and in our awareness of God’s presence in goodness in our life.

As St. Paul says in our reading from this evening: “Now is the acceptable time.”
“Now is the day of salvation.”

It is the acceptable time. It is the day of salvation. Let us take full advantage of it.


The painting above is by Mike Egan whose website can be found at: http://www.eganpaintings.com/ (I'm a big fan)

The funeral for Irene Romuld

Irene Parsley Romuld
(May 4, 1924-February 14, 2010)

Irene seemed to me to be one of those people who would always be there. She was someone who, from my earliest memories, seemed eternal. She seemed to have always been and would always be.

I remember once when I was very young, my father explained to me that one day everyone would die. I remember asking, “You mean, Grandma and Grandpa?”

“Yes,” he said.

And that was as far the discussion got because I immediately broke down crying. It was so hard for me to imagine that my grandparents would die. I couldn’t imagine anyone other than dying for a long time afterward,

Now, all of my grandparents are long gone. And now, sadly, so is most of my grandparents generation. Irene was one of my grandfather’s younger sisters, but still it seems so amazing that now she too is gone.

This is what life is like. I think there is no better time to ponder this than on, of all days, Ash Wednesday. On this day we are reminded that we will die too—a concept that was completely beyond my realm of understanding when my father first explained to me about death when I was young.

But in our Ash Wednesday liturgy, we are reminded, as ashes are spread on our foreheads in the form of a cross—as ashes are placed in the same place our baptismal waters were poured when we were baptized, that we are dust and to dust we shall return.

On Friday, at Sunset Memorial Gardens, we will hear those words, as dirt is poured on Irene’s casket, “we commend to Almighty God our sister Irene, and we commit her body to the ground; earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust.”

All of this just goes to remind us that these words will be said over our bodies or ashes one day. One day our mortal remains will be buried.

But this is not a reason to despair. This not a reason to beat our breasts and lament. Rather, Ash Wednesday and funerals only remind us that our deepest hopes and desires lie beyond the dust of this life.

Our greatest hopes and dreams lie with Christ, who also took on the dust of this life and sanctified it. And because he did, we can, on a day like today, take consolation as we lay the body of Irene to rest and commend her to God.

As difficult as it is today to say goodbye to Irene and to commend her to God, we do so knowing that our goodbyes are temporary. We do so knowing that our goodbyes are not really farewells but rather they are “until we see each other again.”

We do so knowing that as difficult as it is get through a day like today, we know that something more glorious awaits Irene—and ourselves as well.

So, let us set our faces on that glory. Let us look with joy toward that goal for which we are all struggling and working. And let us meet with joy that glorious light that is, at this morning, shining upon Irene and will soon shine upon us all.

I am going to close with a favorite quote. I think it is a quote that really is very helpful in sustaining us in the days and weeks to come. It was found on a bookmark in the prayer book of St. Teresa of Avila:

Let nothing disturb you;
Let nothing frighten you.
All things are passing.
God never changes.
Patience obtains all things.
Nothing is wanting to him who possesses God.
God alone suffices.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Last Epiphany


Transfiguration Sunday
February 14, 2010

Luke 9.28-43a


We began this Epiphany season with two major events in Jesus’ life: Way back on December 27th, we commemorated the Baptism of Jesus in the River Jordan by John the Baptist. The following Sunday, January 3, we commemorated the Wedding Feast at Cana. Now we end the Epiphany season on a glorious high note—the Transfiguration.

I realize that I have preached extensively about the Transfiguration. But you know, I love to do so. It is one of my favorite events in the life of Jesus. It is such an important event that we actually celebrate twice in our Church Year.

We celebrate today, the Last Sunday of Epiphany—the last Sunday before Lent begins. And we celebrate it on August 6. Personally, I truly appreciate that we celebrate it on this Sunday before Lent begins.

I’m happy that we go into the season of Lent with this vision fresh in our minds. Because truly the event of the Transfiguration is what will sustain us and hold us and nourish us through the next forty days.

This Transfiguration and the glory that we see revealed on the Mount was one of the defining events in the theology of Michael Ramsey, truly one of the greatest of the Archbishops of Canterbury. You have heard me talk often of Archbishop Ramsey. I quote him, it seems, whenever I can. He has been, by far, one of the greatest models of Christian life for me personally and he has been someone that I return to again and again whenever I hit a dead-end in my spiritual life or in my theological thinking. And I can always depend on Archbishop Ramsey to gently and graciously lead me out of whatever quandary I’m in.

Probably one of the most comprehensive of Archbishop Ramsey’s writings can be found in the aptly titled anthology of his writings, Glory Descending. This book brings together snippets of Ramsey’s writings and by doing so we see that single thread running right through his writing—the theme of glory. For Ramsey, the glory we witness on Mount Tabor is the glory that awaits us in God’s Presence. It is the glory we see whenever we encounter Jesus in our lives. On Mount Tabor, we have seen the veil temporarily lifted that separates this world from God’s world. And it is a glory that is almost too much Jesus’ followers to comprehend.

Ramsey also effectively brings together that first event we celebrated in this Epiphany season—the baptism in the River Jordan—with the one celebrate on the last Sunday of the Season.

“What the Baptism is to the public ministry of Jesus,” Ramsey once wrote, “the Transfiguration is to the Passion. In both events the Spirit descends. At Jordan the Spirit comes to Him for the fulfillment of His work as prophet, on the mount the Spirit (symbolized by the cloud) comes to Him for his mission as priest. There and then he is glorified, for the glory is his acceptance of the path of suffering…”

It is this glory that we glimpse today that sustains us. It strengthens us for what we are about to participate in our following of Jesus. Because following Jesus always involves this glory that we encounter on the mount. Following Jesus means recognizing in him the role of prophet (as we did at the River Jordan) and Priest (as we do on the Mount). But following Jesus also means following him down off the mountain and onto the path that lead to the hill of Golgotha. It means following Jesus from the glory of the mount all the way to the defeat of the cross. And, of course, beyond the cross as well.

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. For now, we are here. For now, we are encountering the glory of this moment. For now we coming down off the mountain with Jesus and his privileged three followers. And we are struggling to make sense of this event. We are struggling to make sense of this moment of glory.

What do we do when we encounter glory? How do we process it? How do we make sense of glory? Ramsey writes:

“To see the world aright as the substance through which glory can shine, there has to be a degree of detachment from it; love without possessiveness. Peter on the mount of transfiguration wanted to hold on to the vision. He had to learn to let go.”

And that is what we take away from our encounter with the vision on the mount of the transfiguration. It would be nice to stay here, basking the glory of this event. It would be nice to stay put and not come down off the mountain. Because once we come off the mountain, we must face some unpleasant things.

For the followers of Jesus, they must endure their own betrayal of Jesus, they must endure the fact that their betrayal contributes to Jesus’ torture and murder. In our lives, we must come down from the mountain and face our own issues. We must come down and face whatever issues we are wrestling with our lives—issues that seem in many ways to detract from the glory that we have just witnessed. And as we come down and face those things, it is amazing how quickly the vision vanishes from our minds.

In that one moment, when all seemed clear, when all seemed to have come together, we find in the next instant that everything is topsy-turvy again. And that’s this crazy thing we call life.

It often works out this way. We find that we can’t cling to these glorious, wonderful events that happen. But what we can do is carry them deep in our hearts. And if we do, we find that somewhere down that road away from the mount, it will still be there, borne deep within us. Somewhere, when need it the most, that comforting presence we encountered on the mountain will well within us and help sustain us when we need sustaining. Of course, the stickler about this is that it is not something WE can control. We can’t make it happen. We can’t conjure that glorious experience whenever we want it. It happens on its own. It happens when it is needed the most. And when it does, it truly does sustain.

In these next forty days, we will need to be sustained by the glory we encounter today. In this upcoming season, we will be encountering a somewhat more dour side of spirituality. On Wednesday, we will have ashes smeared on our foreheads as a reminder that we will all die one day. We, in this upcoming Lenten season, will face our limitations. We will remember and repent of the wrongdoings we have done in this life—to God, to others and to ourselves. And we will fast. Some of us will fast from certain physical foods or drink. Some of us will abstain from certain practices. Some of us will struggle to use this upcoming season to break certain dependences we’ve had on things and people. And in this season, we will hear in our scripture readings and participate in our liturgy the continuing journey away from the mountain toward the cross of Golgotha. And in those moments, we will need to find an inner sustenance.

In those moments, we truly see how far we have journeyed away from the mount of transfiguration. We might even struggle to remember what it was like. But, then, on Easter morning—there again, that glory will be revealed to us once again and it will all fall into place once more.

So, let us begin our Lenten season with our faces still aglow with this encounter with the transfigured Jesus. Let us go knowing that no matter what will happen—betrayal, physical and emotional pain, death—we know that what ultimately wins out is the glorious light of Jesus’ presence in our life. Let us go from here carrying that glory within us, without detachment. Let us go from here transfigured with Jesus—changed by this encounter with glory so that we can reflect and spread this glory even in the midst of whatever may come to us in the days that are to come.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Visiting the Blessed Sacrament in Christ Church Cathedral

Nassau, the Bahamas


In memory of
The Right Reverend Spence Burton, SSJE
(1881-1966)

Here I find you—
veiled like an ancient doll
in crumpled gold satin.
Here you are
in white-walled colonial simplicity
yet still strangely Gothic enough to make me feel at ease.
I genuflect before you, my aching right knee
touching the flagstone with effort.
I then pause.

I whisper you name—
the only prayer I am ever capable of
when I stand before your presence.
You simple name
full of S’s
sliding about within me.
These visits—
daily in my life in some vaguely northern place,
so far removed from this strange glorious isolation—
are simple events.
Just a pause in the day,
a breathing in and out of your name,
a hushed moment in which my pulse slows within me—
almost turning my blood to sap—
and then back at it again,
whatever “it” might be that day.

Today, there is no “it” to go back to,
only this city
with its clean sky colored the way I could do if I could,
its reflection a bit darker—
but not much—
in the water.

You remember
as you do
my long-ago sickness
in that unending wintry spring.
In the midst of that misery
one day I gazed up and saw in a store
a painting very much like the landscape here—
the same pale blue of sky and water,
the same white sand,
the same scattering of palm trees,
its fronds blown askew.
And the frail, enemic clouds.
It was so simple
and yet, at that sick-heavy moment,
with that cold which settled into me
and wouldn’t give up,
it was heaven. I said so in that moment
to my mother, who, like yours, could not
recognize what I saw then.

Now, here I am
and here you are.
It all seems so right
in a way I could never plan
or even imagine.

Here, you wait
and have waited
and will continue to wait
amid the Anglo-Catholic splendor

Between us we know,
this is what it be like that in that place
I saw in my vision that long-ago sick day.
This is how I will find completion,
there in a place in which you will not be hidden
by a swath of ancient satin,
within a canister of tarnished bronze.

Then,
you will greet me as I you promised to do,
with your arms wide open
in joy,
and not in the anguish someone
painstakingly reproduced here
above us
in panes of stained color.

Off the coast of Freeport, the Bahamas

It is blood to remember; it is fire
To stammer back... It is
God—your namelessness. And the wash—
--Hart Crane

1.

Neon churns up from the jet-char depths,
folded up into the long,
gasping wake.

I stand here, enraptured—
maybe in the way
Hart Crane was in these same waters
before he climbed over the high railing,
waved
and let himself fall
into the murk.

Not murk though.
It’s neon, as I said.
It a glorious deepness.
And it’s easy—
easier than anything—
to disappear into.
It’s so easy to let our flesh,
our picked-clean bones,
descend into the swell.
It’s easy to gasp
last in this dark isolation
crying out to the wind and waves
what the nuns on the Deutschland did
that cold Advent day—
Christ, O Christ.

I would cry out too if I could
certainly during my long fall
into the deep.

2.

I opened my ribboned Office Book—
the worn leather fingered almost gray—
and in the midst of psalms and canticles
cadenced into prayer
I find myself listing those closest in thought
to what I petition.
Mother. Father—
whose thoughts bring with them
an ache deeper than the phantom dull ache
I have carried with me all day.
Shirley—
who is slowly
being erased as the record of her life
plays slowly backward.
The soul of Stuart—
who I saw just last week as he
rocked back and forth,
slowly being disconnected
from his wife and his children and his life
by the cancer.
And then finally the one I think of
obsessively on this trip—
the soul of Hart,
who lies two thousand feet beneath me.
Or his precious sand does anyway.

3.

And you! O you!
You I list as well,
you whose name I recite at least twice
each day in these petitions.
You I think of in this place
you I imagine here with me
in this dark glory,
this churning light,
as you once were
in a place not much different than this.

I look into the waters
and recite your name.
The wind takes it from my lips
and casts it into the wake
that trails us in deep water troughs.
There, as it escapes my sight
into the dark and neon,
I see it does not touch the swell even once.
It lightens there,
tossed and flung,
dancing as if it could—
hard consonants and all—
until it disappears finally
lost to me
out my aching reach.

For all my petitions,
this is the one that failed consistently.
And its failure is, I realize,
only now, in this dark night,
the answer.
It is not the one I wanted.
It is the one word I resisted.
Just that simple one.
No.
I struggled against it
and against all that it negates
and takes from me.
Still, I accept it
and watch
as your name rises once again
from the dark wave,
a perfectly-shaped shadow atop the neon water,
persistent as the ocean.

4.

Above, a cloud so ghostly it chills, follows us.
It is as a large as the world!
Or how would Neruda have said it?

la oscuridad del archipiƩlago

Hart Crane—
despairing as he was—
manic on that last voyage—
no doubt still
even then
was enraptured by clouds—
certainly clouds made so vibrant
against this certainly-false blue.

And that salt, I know full well,
musty have been salt in his open
emotional wounds.

We’ve all known it.
We’ve all—
in those moments—
been tempted to step off into the blue
to leave the wounds and scars and phantom aches behind
and to reach out instead to whatever lies
out there, ahead of us—
embracing it
and hoping
as he I’m sure did
to be embraced back.

February 5, 2010

5 Epiphany


February 7, 2010

Luke. 5-1-11

I think one of the things all of us have dealt with in one form or the other is failure. We’ve all known somewhat what it’s like to fail at something and how difficult it can be.

In my life as a priest, there have been moments of absolute failure. Moments when I feel I have failed my congregation in some way, when I have failed an individual who has come to me for help and I simply cannot help or, in a moment of fatigue or frustration, simply refused to help.

Or just those simple moments when one has worked very hard at something only to realize that it has failed miserably and there is simply no way to redeem it.

On our Gospel reading for today, we find the apostles also suffering forma feeling of failure. They have been fishing all night and have caught nothing. Night fishing of course was important. They fished at night so they could take their fresh catch to market in the morning to sell it. You can almost imagine then the frustration they would have felt at that loss.

But in the midst of their failure, Jesus tells them to let their nets down and they end up catching so many fish their nets burst. And Peter, in the midst of this overwhelming success starts deprecating himself.

But Jesus tells him and the others, “Do not fear…”

As you know, because I preach about it without end, those are, by far, my favorite words in scripture.

Do not fear.

In the midst of our own perceived failure, those are the words we need to hear from Jesus. And when we hear them, we know without a doubt that is sometimes only Jesus can turn our failures around for us. He is the one who can tell us after a dark night of failure in our lives to no longer fear and then, in the midst of that failure, we find abundance.

Certainly this is what the message of the Cross of Jesus is all about. Talk about failure! It seemed like the ultimate failure. Jesus had been so fully and completely defeated on the cross. It seemed that fear had really won out. It seemed in that awful moment that darkness had won out over light.

And then look what happened. Easter happened. In the midst of the failure of excruciating, horrible death, Jesus turned it all around with the ultimate of all commands to feel no fear. Light triumphed. Fear was trampled under foot. Life once and for all destroyed death.

In those moment sin our life when failure seems to have won out (and they will come), when it seems that everything we have done for the good has been defeated and trampled underfoot, we need to hear those words of Jesus that he tells us again and again,

“Do not fear.”

We need to believe that Jesus truly can turn our defeats into success in his own time and in his own way. And Jesus will turn it around. And when he does, we will find ourselves truly turned around. And in that place toward which he turns us, we will find ourselves truly following him.