Reverend Anne Knight Hoey, our interim director
Anne Knight Hoey was born in Austin at the old St. David’s Hospital at 17 th and Rio Grande. She attended local schools, graduated from St. Stephen’s Episcopal School, and studied at Wellesley College and the University of Texas, where she earned a B.A. in Spanish. There she met William Llewellyn Hoey, an artist and later member of the U.T. art faculty. They married in 1963 and were parents of three daughters. Anne and Bill both sang in the choir and served on the vestry and as senior wardens at Good Shepherd. Bill died in 1994.
All three Hoey girls attended St. Andrew’s and St. Stephen’s Schools, and Anne served as trustee of both institutions and as chair of the St. Andrew’s school board. She was employed by the Episcopal Theological Seminary of the Southwest as editor of its publications from 1978 until 1985, when she entered seminary as a postulant for holy orders. She received the degree of Master of Divinity and was ordained to the diaconate in 1988 and to the priesthood in 1989. She later served the seminary as adjunct lecturer and tutor in theology, as seminary chaplain, and as a member of its board of trustees.
Anne served as associate rector of the Church of the Good Shepherd, Austin, from 1988 to 1997; rector of St. James’, La Grange, from 1997 to 2001; and associate rector of St. Michael’s, Austin, from 2001 until her retirement from the active ministry in 2005. She continues to serve as supply priest in various churches in and around Austin as well as St. Paul’s, Marfa, and St. James’, Alpine. She was interim rector at St. Alban’s, Austin, in 2014-15.
Anne’s daughter Sarah and her husband Jim Porter live in Austin. Her daughter Catherine lives in Houston with her husband Will Randall and their children Sam, Lizzy and Fairfax. Her oldest daughter Elizabeth died in 1982. Anne shares quarters with her faithful and highly entertaining dog Freddie and their cats Nemo and Alice. Their hobbies are reading, gardening, and the Sunday New York Times crossword.
Reverend Anne's Sermon - Sunday, May 28, 2017
As I was reading the propers for today I came upon a clipping I’d once stuck there to mark the place. Goes like this.
Organized religion has caused me many difficulties throughout my life. I would like to distance myself from it as much as possible. I consider myself a ‘religious independent.’ I believe in God, but I don’t believe organized religion has anything to do with God.
My question concerns my funeral. Since a funeral is an organized religious ceremony, is it possible to have one without clergy being present? Have you heard of anything like this, and what would you suggest?
Declining to be drawn into the whole clergy issue, Abby offered a sort of generic suggestion of pre-planning a “celebration of life” with her local funeral home, making sure her family and friends knew her wishes.
It reminded me of what used to happen at parochial-report-to-the-diocese time at my home parish. The rector is required every year to go through the parish rolls and sort the sheep from the goats: how many active members, how many have died, transferred, lapsed into inactivity or just flat quit coming.
Our rector Sam had his own variation on the theme: he’d put the cards of those he’d seen around on Sundays in one pile, those who were lost, stolen, strayed or gone to glory in another.
And then he had a pile of his own devising labeled B.P.O., which stood for Burial Purposes Only. These were folks who had pretty much fallen by the wayside but who, Sam had learned from experience, would want to be buried from the church. Obviously a vile prospect to Abby’s writer, for whom, in the words of former House speaker John Boehner, the answer was not just no, but hell no!
While I’m at it in the quirky church department, I might as well throw this one in as well. It’s been hanging around in my archives for decades.
Members of a Baptist congregation have asked a Superior Court judge to bar a woman parishioner from their church. They charge, among other things, that she sings off key.
Superior Judge McIntyre Faries took the matter under submission today after eight days of testimony about the conduct of Mrs. Betty Chapman at the First Baptist Church of Mar Vista.
The Rev. Wayne A. Eurich, pastor of the church, testified that Mrs. Chapman... had ‘disrupted services by murmuring “liar” and making faces.’ [I assume at him.]
Other witnesses, including deacons of the church, said Mrs. Chapman purposely sang [off key] and wore distracting feathered hats to the church services.
You can’t make this stuff up!
Why, one wonders, do people get so wrought up over “organized religion”? And what, I ask rhetorically, is it that so corks them off? The answer, I find self-evident, is hypocrisy. People have noticed that often we churches don’t practice what we preach.
What I think such people don’t factor into the equation is that the church is not a collection of saints who can be counted on to give off a perpetual odor of sanctity, but a bunch of human beings, whose missteps and side steps and steps into something stinky are part of what it means to be human.
But part of being human is also being full of holiness. It comes of having been created in the image and likeness of God. We’ve lost the likeness, yes, but the image is still within us, capable of being awoken, aroused, inspired.
Tomorrow is Memorial Day, the day dedicated not just to mattress sales but to paying tribute to those who have given what Lincoln called on the field of Gettysburg “the last full measure of devotion,” who died in service to their country. We are in a season of patriotic observances: Memorial Day, Flag Day, the Fourth of July.
It is also the season of graduations. The season of commencements. The moving from one place, one life, to another. During the last week I have heard two commencement addresses. After the first, I thought, this is it! After the second I thought, so is this! Two thoughtful addresses at institutions in which I also spent time, places that figure in my own story as well.
The first was my seminary’s graduation, where I got to see Donna receive her diploma and the academic hood that signifies her as a Master of Arts in Chaplaincy and Pastoral Care. Not that she needed those outward and visible signs to prove that’s who and what she is. Donna is definitely a true master of her calling. But it’s nice to have things to hang on your wall and around your neck as well.
The commencement address was given by Dr. Ellen Davis, Distinguished Professor of Bible and Practical Theology at Duke. Dr. Davis offered an inspired and inspiring charge to those who were setting out on their various ministries in the church. As it was to me, whose ministry is winding down. I’ll never read Ezekiel again through the same eyes, and I went immediately to Amazon and ordered one of her books called Getting Involved with God: Rediscovering the Old Testament.
The second was Hillary Clinton’s address to the alma mater we share, although Hillary graduated, while I transferred in my junior year to the promised land of Bevo and the Drag, like a swallow returning to Capistrano. I sat in the parking lot in front of a hardware store and listened to Hillary’s address, in which, she said, she was inspired by that place to remember “who I am, where I come from, what I believe,” and to issue a resounding call to those young women to give themselves to things worthy of their devotion. And especially to that severely discredited vocation, politics, which she defined as the art of making what seems improbable possible.
She had a lot of inspiring things to say, ending on this note: we need your smarts, your compassion, your curiosity, your stubbornness. But don’t expect, she said, to go it alone, but to remember that it does take a village. We must, she urged, invest our love and our time in relationships.
Sort of like the church.
There’s an article by Robert Putnam titled “Bowling Alone: America’s Declining Social Capital” in which he describes the changes he sees in the way we Americans go about being together. There was a time, he wrote, when a great many of us were part of various groups that came together in a spirit of trust and mutuality to do things for the common good. We worked and played together in civic clubs, fraternal orders, political organizations, labor unions—and bowling leagues.
Now many of these organizations have fallen on hard times. Bowling alone is a metaphor for this decline in social interaction, in teamwork. Nearly 80 million Americans went bowling at least once in that year, he wrote, nearly a third more than voted in the year’s congressional election and roughly the same number as claim to attend church regularly. But while more people than ever were bowling, bowling leagues decreased by 40 percent. People still want the fun and exercise of bowling, but it seems they aren’t interested in joining a group to do it together in competition with other teams.
The general decline in group membership Putnam talks about first appeared in those organizations typically composed of women, such as the PTA and the League of Women Voters; then struck typically male associations like Lions and Elks, Masons and Shriners. Labor unions, once the second family to the American worker, dropped by half. And ownership in the political process is an embarrassment to our democracy, with the number of eligible voters who actually go to the polls continuing to decline.
One of the few groups that are growing is support groups such as twelve-step programs. But these are oriented around the needs of their individual members. They provide a setting in which people engage their own story in the presence of others. Putnam likens it to “being alone together.”
Modern giants like the American Association of Retired Persons are essentially associations of strangers with common interests within a social vacuum. The individual members have no meaningful interaction with one another.
In a time we call the age of communication, the internet enables strangers to exchange opinions without any sustained civic engagement. Talk radio “mobilizes ... private opinions, ...and trades on anxiety, anger and distrust, all of which are deadly” to community.
The one place where people still continue to come together week after week not only for their own nourishment but for the good of the body is the church. Ours may not be the medieval theocracy of the ages of faith, but neither is it the wasteland of godless secularism that some had predicted.
People come together for various reasons. They get together in congenial social groups because they want to. They band together for mutual defense and economic stability because they need to.
The church comes together because we are called to, because it is our vocation. The church is the sacrament of mutual indwelling, a place, a body, in which it’s safe to confess our sins and know we are forgiven, a body of human interdependence created in the image of a God known in Trinity. A God in communion.
Some groups provide a way of being alone together; the church is a way of being together even when alone. We are a communion of saints, a community of being, a corporate sacrament of love.
Singing off key is allowed.
Reverend Anne's Sermon - June 25, 2017
3rd Sunday following Pentecost
As you may have figured by now, in my opinion there’s no place more mete and right for a good laugh than church. I’m all for making a joyful noise. I think we sometimes take ourselves way too seriously, and being able to laugh, especially at ourselves, with each other seems to me pure grace. And if other people are laughing, too, it’s even better. I like to believe God is in on the joke as well.
Last Sunday we heard Sarah laughing. Sarah, Abraham’s post-menopausal wife, totally cracked up when she heard that, because of the kindness she and Abraham had shown to strangers, they were to receive a bounteous reward: the answer to their lifelong prayer for a child. Sarah thought it was a joke. Turned out to be true.
Meanwhile, during all those years when Abraham and Sarah had been trying for a baby and nothing was happening, in a culture that demanded a male heir, Sarah had done what we might think unthinkable. She’d volunteered her Egyptian slave Hagar to Abraham as a more fertile vessel for the paternal seed. And from that union a son had been born.
The story picks up this morning when what we might have predicted would happen did happen. When Sarah herself gave birth to this miracle son Isaac, the son she’d prayed for all these years, the son of her long and fruitless marriage, she wanted for him the exclusive patrimony of his father Abraham. And when she saw Isaac and his half-brother, the child of that other woman, playing together, she saw trouble ahead. Sarah’s not laughing today. Get them out of here, she told Abraham.
It was a terrible thing to ask of Abraham, to whom, says Genesis, “the matter was very distressing on account of his son,” Ishmael. His firstborn son; the son of Hagar.
So God steps in: do what Sarah wants, came the word, but don’t fret. Because from this son of Hagar I will make another great nation.”
The two most populous religions of the world, Christianity and Islam, sprang, like our Jewish forebears, from the seed of Abraham. Christians and Jews trace our lineage back to Abraham through Isaac. Islam traces its lineage back to Abraham through Ishmael, father of the Arabs.
Which lends a terrible immediacy to Jesus’ words in today’s gospel: “For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household.”
Today Sarah isn’t the only one who doesn’t feel like laughing. After closing the gospel book and returning it to the altar, I don’t much feel like it either. Hard to make light of the sibling rivalry in those prophetic words.
People just naturally seem to fall out over religion. And politics. Those two human constructs designed to bring people together all too often rip us apart.
An old friend of mine called me the other day and we were having a very enjoyable conversation, laughing and joking and comparing the many symptoms our respective flesh is heir to. But then into of the blue she launched the name of a certain someone whom she finds worthy of praise and whom I do not; and I felt a cold fist around my heart. Not just toward him, but toward her.
That’s a terrible thing to admit. It’s an even more terrible thing to feel. Fortunately, we managed to steer out of those troubled waters and into a safe harbor of neutrality.
But when I saw this in the paper the next day a light bulb went off over my head. It was a piece by the distinguished Mideast scholar and Pulitzer Prize-winning author Thomas Friedman, who was at a conference in Montreal recently when he was asked by a fellow attendee, “What do you fear most these days?”
“I paused for a second,” writes Friedman, “like a spectator waiting to see what would come out of my own mouth.”
I know the feeling.
“I fear,” he finally answered, “that we’re seeing the end of ‘truth’—that we simply can’t agree any more on basic facts.”
Like Pontius Pilate: “What is truth?”
“And I fear,” said Friedman, “that we’re becoming Sunnis and Shiites—we call them ‘Democrats’ and ‘Republicans,’ but the sectarianism that has destroyed nation-states in the Middle East is now infecting us.”
“It used to be,” he later mused, “that people didn’t want their kids to marry one of ‘them,’ ... someone of a different religion or race or color or creed. Now the ‘them’ is someone of a different [political] party.”
When Friedman got home from the conference he called his friend and teacher Dov Seidman, who is CEO of something called LRN, and asked him what he thought was happening.
I asked Google what LRN stands for and got several suggestions, everything from “Laparoscopic Radical Nephrectomy” to “Leading Round by the Nose,” none of which is Seidman’s group. I still don’t know what LRN stands for, but its website says its purpose is “Inspiring Principled Performance” in today’s changing world. “Like individuals,” says the website, “organizations have character, their corporate culture.”
“What is happening,” Seidman told Friedman,” is that “we’re experiencing ...an assault on the very foundations of our society and democracy—the twin pillars of truth and trust. What makes us Americans is that we signed up [at our birth as a nation] to have a relationship with ideals that are greater than [ourselves] and with truths that we agreed were so self-evident they would be the foundation of our shared journey toward a more perfect union—and of respectful disagreement along the way.
“We also agreed that the source of legitimate authority to govern would come from ‘We the people.’ But when there is no ‘we’ anymore, because ‘we’ no longer share basic truths, then there is no legitimate authority and no unifying basis for our continued association.”
As if that weren’t bad enough, today, he says, “We’re not just deeply divided, as we’ve been before, we’re being divided—by cheap tools that make it so easy to broadcast one’s own ‘truths’ and to undermine real ones.”
The cheap tools of what he calls the “anger industry [are] now either sending us into comfortable echo chambers where we don’t [encounter] the other or arousing such moral outrage in us toward the other that we can no longer see their humanity, let alone embrace them as fellow Americans with whom we share values. “With shared truth debased and trust in leaders diminished, we now face a full-blown ‘crisis of authority itself.”
And authority, says Seidman, is both formal and moral. “While our system can’t function without leaders with formal authority, what makes it really work is when leaders occupying those formal positions—from business to politics to schools to sports—have moral authority.
“Leaders with moral authority understand what they can demand of others and what they must inspire in them. They also understand that formal authority can be won or seized, but moral authority has to be earned every day by how they lead.”
Leaders with moral authority, he says, have several things in common: “They trust people with the truth—however bright or dark. They’re animated by values—especially humility—and principles of probity, so they do the right things, especially when they’re difficult or unpopular. And they enlist people in noble purposes and onto journeys worthy of their dedication.”
This is a high calling, worthy of the charge that Jesus lays out to his disciples. And it also carries Jesus’ caveat: “If they have called the master of the house Beelzebul, how much more will they malign those of his household!”
But Friedman, like the prophets, leaves us with hope. “The upside,” he says,” is that leaders can come out of anywhere. In the long run, the... thing that will save us is if more people—no matter what age, color, gender or faith—build moral authority in their respective realms and then use it to do big, meaningful things. Use it to run for office, start a company, operate a school, lead a movement or build a community organization. And in so doing can help put the “We in ‘We the people.’”
And so the word goes out as it did to Matthew’s household: Chin up. God’s got his eye on you. We may not all manage to do “big, meaningful things.” But every great movement must begin somewhere. And you and I come from a long line of small beginnings, on journeys worthy of our dedication.
Next week we celebrate Independence Day in the life of the nation and of the church. We’ll take Jesus at his word: “Don’t be afraid.” I wanted to get this other stuff out of the way today so that we the people can look on the bright side next Sunday.
Because our bright side is very bright—if we remain true to who we are: to witness to the Spirit of Christ alive in the midst of God’s people, urging us to “have no fear, for nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered, and nothing secret that will not become known. What I say to you in the dark, tell in the light; and what you hear whispered, proclaim from the housetops… and take up your cross and follow.”
Reverend Anne's Sermon - May 4, 2017 - Pentecost
THE DAY OF PENTECOST
In case you’re wondering, today is Pentecost. We’re all lit up. Fired up, you might say.
The Day of Pentecost, the second of the three great feasts of the liturgical calendar. Easter. Pentecost. Christmas. It might come as a surprise to some that Pentecost ranks ahead of Christmas in the hierarchy of feasts. We think of Christmas and Easter as the two benchmarks of Christianity. The Incarnation and the Resurrection. Then along comes Pentecost, sliding in under the radar of graduation exercises and summer plans.
I guess we should consider ourselves lucky the marketing gurus haven’t yet picked up on Pentecost. The mind reels at what might be made of a commercial blitzkrieg of Holy Ghost paraphernalia, although it might be hard to come up with a marketable theme, the ghost motif having already been co-opted by All Hallows Eve.
Despite Pentecost’s relative anonymity among the general public, it’s right up there next to the Resurrection as one of the defining moments of our faith. It’s the day the Church remembers as the one on which she was brought into being, the glorious finale to the Easter season, the “projection of [her] Easter message into every land, into every [age].”
As a special treat today—at least I hope it will be for you the treat it is for me!—we’ll use for our Eucharistic Prayer form D, the beautiful and most ancient words adapted from the fourth century rite of St. Basil the Great. It’s authorized for use among more Christians than any other Eucharistic prayer, especially on dates of special solemnity, by the Eastern Orthodox, by Coptic Christians and Roman Catholics, Lutherans and Methodists, by the ecumenical Consultation on Church Union.
And because one line says, “You formed us in your own image, giving the whole world into our care, so that, in obedience to you, our Creator, we might rule and serve all your creatures,” some have declared its call to serve all creatures the PETA prayer. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.
When I was growing up in the church we used to call today Whitsunday, the first Sunday of the week known as Whitsuntide. Such an Anglican season it was. So seemly, so decent and in order, with its “whit” for white, its decorous English-ness.
(I can’t go on about England without offering a silent prayer for the victims of the latest unspeakable horror, for their families and friends, for the terrible affront to England’s green and pleasant land.)
After that came Trinity and its following Sundays to finish out the church year. If you look in a 1928 Prayer Book you’ll see Sundays after Trinity. But you won’t find a season of Pentecost.
I thought it might be nice to give you a little explanation of why the powers-that-be made that change. I certainly have enough tomes on my shelves to look through. But when I hadn’t found it after the first half dozen, I decided it qualified for the life’s-too-short department. .Ipse dixit. He said it.
Whoever he is.
Suffice it to say the very word Pentecost makes us sit up and take notice. Pentecost has an altogether different sound to it—bloody red and smacking of evangelical fervor: faith healing and snake handling and speaking in tongues. So in your face. So out of order. So un-English.
Not that we don’t do our best to tame it, to speak of it in language we can handle. We refer to it as the birthday of the church. We wear red, we deck the hall with red balloons and eat strawberries and cakes iced with “Happy Birthday, dear Church.” I love it that we are able this morning to have folks read the lesson from Acts in different tongues: Spanish, French, Arabic, even sign language!
We set out to echo the ecstatic experience of the disciples as they spilled into the streets of Jerusalem, unable to contain the words that erupted from them in a polyglot babble, proclaiming to all those Parthians, those Medes, those Elamites, those residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs in their own tongues the good news that erupted from the Spirit that had taken possession of their very beings.
If we really thought about what Pentecost means—to us as well as to those formerly dispirited disciples—we’d plaster it with signs that proclaim, “Warning! Danger! Enter at your own risk! Beyond are monsters.” We might find ourselves siding with the Anglican bishop who said to John Wesley, “Sir, the pretending to extraordinary revelations and gifts of the Holy Ghost is a horrid thing, a very horrid thing.”
Because Pentecost, if we think about it, is dangerous to our health, our health as ordinary garden-variety Christians. That Holy Ghost is not to be trifled with, for it has the power to transform us into something we know not what, something we might not recognize if we ran into it out walking around, something that might evoke from us Mrs. Patrick Campbell’s famous caveat about making love in public: something liable to frighten the horses and ourselves as well.
Pentecost turned a group of disciples—of followers—into a band of apostles—those sent out. Sent out in the power of the Spirit to proclaim to the world what God had done in and through their friend and Lord. The wind and fire of Pentecost were not flickering votives and a gentle breeze, but a rushing gale and tongues of leaping flame, carrying all before them in a cataclysmic eruption of power.
“You send forth your Spirit, and they are created,” sings the Psalmist. “And so you renew the face of the earth.” The Holy Spirit has the power to transform us into the people God would have us be, God’s instruments for transforming others, God’s means of transforming the face of the earth.
We don’t always see it that way. We’re pretty stuck on our own vision of how the world ought to operate, our own sense of self, our own notions of what’s what and what’s not. We invoke the Spirit’s transformation at this altar every Sunday; as bread and wine become body and blood, so we are remade our baptized bodies, the Body of Christ: changed, sanctified, made anew.
Yet when we think about the seven traditional gifts of the Holy Spirit—wisdom, understanding, counsel, fortitude, knowledge, piety, fear of the Lord—they don’t always constitute what we think we might need for a life’s equipment. We might be more likely to wish for ourselves street smarts and financial savvy, good health and long life, a love that lasts and a merciful death.
That is a normal wish list. But is it the Spirit’s wish for us? How might the Spirit renew the face of the earth through us?
I noticed when I was engaged in my usual sermon-writing avoidance a fire ant habitation tucked away discretely back by my compost bed, its residents hoping perhaps I wouldn’t notice them...till they got my attention on their own stinging terms. But the recent rains have given them new mound-building energy. And that’s where I came in.
Thankful to have the excuse to do anything besides what I was supposed to be doing, I ran—well, ambled—for the Amdro—sorry, PETA; sorry, St. Francis—sprinkled a ring around the mound and then went off to stare at the computer screen. A couple of hours later I was ready for another break, and, sure enough, they were hard at work. The mound was alive with ant activity. To-ing and fro-ing, the workers struggling up and down, muscling pieces of Amdro twice their size into the hole at the top, furiously intent on stockpiling their arsenal of doom, colluding in their own self-destruction.
How like them we sometimes find ourselves: frantic to do the things we believe will satisfy us, as we push our burdens up and down the anthills of our lives. How loathe we are to still, to listen for the voice of God, to acknowledge God’s transforming Spirit within us.
We listen at our own risk. For to listen is to die. Beyond there are monsters.
But listen we must. For to listen is to live. And God is full of surprises. “Yonder is the great and wide sea…and there is that Leviathan, which [God has] made for the sport of it.”
Come, Holy Spirit. Enter and dwell in our hearts this day, and so renew the face of the earth.
Reverend Ann's Sermon - May 28, 2017
I have a mental picture of myself as a little girl, standing in front of therefrigerator, staring into its depths as into the holy of holies, as my mother yells, “Close the door! You’re letting out the cold!”
And I reply in the universal whine of children of plenty, staring at the bountiful harvest of sea and shore, field and forest: “There’s nothing in here to eat!”
Obviously, I’ve found more than enough along the way. The chances of my starving to death have never been more remote. But still, I remember those days in front of the fridge when I’m checking out at the grocery store, whipping out my debit card to pay for a basketful of stuff that turns out to be mostly Tide and cough drops and Charmin—and not much to sustain life.
It goes without saying that food is important. It’s important physically. It’s important spiritually. It’s important morally.
Physically is a no-brainer. We’re probably closing in on the bad new days when we’ll get all our nutrition in pill form, but for the time being we’re still doing things the old fashioned way. Vast industries cater to our love of all things delicious. I hardly recognize this town I grew up in, where I now learn we Austinites spend more money on eating out than at the grocery store, and we literally bulge at the seams with places to satisfy both hunger and appetite.
We may not be cooking at home as much as we used to, but anyone who’s dropped by Breed’s or Williams-Sonoma knows the huge array of high dollar pots and pans and marvelous gadgets that tempt the would-be chef in all of us.
And then there’s the new incarnation of our friendly neighborhood grocer from days gone by. I remember opening the newspaper one morning some years ago to discover two photographs, one above the other, on the front page.
The first was a photo of refugees streaming out of Kosovo into Macedonia, wrenched from their homes, separated from families and friends, salvaging only what they could carry on their backs; hungry and cold and bewildered and afraid. On foot they came, or by tractor or bicycle or mule; one old granny pushed along in a wheelbarrow.
The outward and visible signs of man’s inhumanity to man.
Right below it was a picture of a crowd of people waiting for the then-new
Central Market South to open, leaning on the brand new grocery carts they would soon wheel into that bountiful paradise: aisle after aisle of heaped-up produce fresh from the farm, meats from every animal that walks the earth and fish that swims the seas, hundreds of cheeses and an equal assortment of crackers on which to spread them, bins of bulk foods and crates of wines, a dozen kinds of olives and even more varieties of pasta, fresh-baked breads and tortillas still warm from the griddle; an abundance of delicacies to tempt every palate, all that an affluent and pampered society expects as its just deserts.
Which brings us to the spiritual side of hunger.
Hunger is a metaphor for the human condition. We hunger for the food of life, of meaning, of love. Give us, we pray, our daily bread, and like baby birds, we jostle one another in the nest, tilting our beaks toward the sky in expectation of the heavenly parent who will fill us with good things.
When we first encounter man and woman in the biblical story of creation, they have a built-in hunger. Genesis tells us that God first instructed his new creatures to be fruitful and multiply. And then to eat. “Behold I have given you every plant yielding seed that is upon the face of all the earth and every tree with seed in its fruit; you shall have them for food.
Food is the symbol of life at its creation: the Garden of Eden.
And food is the symbol of life at its end: the Lamb's high feast, the messianic banquet.
It can also represent separation from God. Adam and Eve were driven from the Garden for eating from the forbidden tree. Cain murdered his brother Abel out of jealousy over which one’s food was a more acceptable offering to God, and was banished to the Land of Nod, east of Eden.
And food is a central theme of Christ’s resurrection. When Luke wants to assure his readers that Jesus has truly risen from the dead, he depicts him as hungry. “Have you anything here to eat,” he asks. So they rustle up a piece of fish, “and he took it and ate in their presence.”
Food and life are bound up together in the gospels. Jesus follows in the great tradition of his ancestors: God is the source of life and salvation, the provider of manna in the wilderness of our daily needs. For a crowd that had feasted on his words, he told his disciples, “You give them something to eat.” 1
Scripture’s take on food is that it is a sacred gift from God. We and all creation depend on God’s bounty. But we alone of all creatures have the ability and the obligation to thank God for our daily bread, and, like Christ, to take, bless, break and share it. And so we come to the moral dimension of hunger: the sharing.
I don’t have to dig into my archives for the only example of the world’s vast inequities, the glaring disparities exemplified by refugees clinging to life and shoppers puzzling over whether to spring for Marcona almonds at a buck-fifty an ounce.
Our world is still awash with terrible stories of those who have been bombed and persecuted and driven from their homes into desperation and want. To borrow the cadence from Acts’ account of the day of Pentecost, there are Syrians and Iraqis, Palestinians and Kurds, residents of Somalia and Central America, Sudan and the parts of Libya belonging to ISIS; visitors from Mexico, both Jews and proselytes.
Today’s spotlight of sorrow falls most glaringly on Syria, where a despot’s war against his own people “is creating the worst global refugee crisis in decades, putting new pressure on the US and other Western countries to open their doors...” say the headlines.
“Not since the wave of people who fled Southeast Asia after the war in Vietnam have the world’s industrialized countries been under such intense pressure to share the burden of taking in refugees, experts say. Nor has the task of offering sanctuary been so politically fraught.”
1 Matthew 14:16.
2 Acts 2:9.
The world’s industrialized nations have been called to take in hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees over the next years, a mere “fraction of the millions ... who have poured into the countries bordering Syria—chiefly Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey—straining their resources and plunging many displaced people into poverty.”
What will become of them? Where will they go?
“Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, O blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’” 3
Here in the Church, the hunger of our Lenten fast has given way to the Easter feast. We celebrate in the way we always do: by eating and drinking together our sacred meal. But our Eucharistic feast signifies more than just a private communion with our resurrected Lord within our own community of faith.
Jesus took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and gave it to his disciples. To us. As we eat and drink at this holy table we, too become a sacrament, a living sacrament: the Body of Christ.
We, too, are “taken; blessed, broken, and [given]; that [we] may be the means of grace” 4 and the bearers of God’s love to a people who hunger for a word from the Lord, and for crumbs from the world’s table.
Reverend Anne's Sermon - Sunday April 23
Sticks and stones may break my bones; but words can never harm me.
What genius, what denizen of what alternative universe wished that one on the playgrounds of history, where harmful taunts put the lie to its sugar-coated crock? Sticks and stones may break my bones. But bones can re-knit, given a good orthopedist and time to heal.
Words on the other hand. Words may cripple in ways no stone nor stick ever dreamed possible. Words may break our hearts.
One of my all-time heroes is the late John Hines, former Bishop of Texas and later Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church. I remember Bishop Hines from the early lean years at St. Stephen’s School when I was a student. I still see him striding up and down the sidelines, exhorting our fledgling football team with his great prophetic voice. He was the best preacher I’ve ever heard. This is his getting-ready- to-preach prayer:
We pray, O God, that thy Word may invade our words:
-- that it may make the complex simple, and the weak strong;
-- that by it, the blind may lead the blind without both falling into the ditch;
-- that through it the desperate may find hope; and a whisper scarcely strong enough to reach those in the farthest pew may give purpose and power to life.
That thy Word may invade our words. The Word of God. The Logos. Jesus, the Christ.
“In the beginning was the Word,” begins the Gospel of John, “and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God, and all things were made through him.”
It recalls to us the words of Genesis: “In the beginning ... the earth was without form and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep; and the Spirit of God moved across the face of the waters. And God said: ‘Let there be light.’”
God said. God’s Word spoke the world into being. With a really big bang.
Words, our human words, also have power: power for both good and evil. Power to create. Power to destroy. They may be words of blessing. They may hurt like hell.
Take, for example, the word “Low.”
Today is one of the two Sundays of the year known as Low Sunday: the first Sunday after Christmas, the Sunday after Easter Day. The Feasts of the Anticlimax. Low refers to expectations, borne out by attendance. Last week the church was full. Last week was full of church. No sense overdoing it.
Meanwhile, here we are, you and I, still doing business at the same old stand. Still singing Easter hymns and praying Easter prayers and exchanging the peace and having a meal with the family, the whole Communion of Saints, the living and the dead. Nothing low about that!
Or, for another example, take the word “Doubt.”
History has saddled Thomas, a faithful disciple, with the nickname that has come to define him—Doubting Thomas—on no evidence beyond the passage we read today. Here’s how it went: Thomas was not there when Jesus first appeared to the disciples, who were all in shock over the death of their friend, not to mention the jolt from having him walk in to join them through a locked door.
When they told Thomas later what had happened, can you blame him for invoking our own standard of reliability, trust but verify? But notice what he does when Jesus invites him to see for himself, to touch his wounds.
He doesn’t. He doesn’t need to.
Nor do we, and that’s the point. We say, with Thomas, “My Lord and my God.” Thomas has a lot of churches named for him. But he still can’t shake that “doubting” tag. Although we heard him this morning referred to as “the twin.” Some scholars speculate his twin is none other than Jesus!
But I digress.
Take, then, the word “Jew.” We’ve heard a lot about “the Jews” from John lately. And now today’s gospel: “When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them.”
Since Jesus and everyone else in the room were all Jews, we can safely suppose that when John said they were afraid of “the Jews” he didn’t mean the entire race. He meant a certain class, established by birth and station: the Jewish authorities, the leaders of the temple, who were scandalized and enraged that one of Jesus’ humble pedigree might command an authority that topped their own.
“Do not write, ‘The King of the Jews,’” on his cross, they huffed at Pilate. “Write, ‘This man says he is the king of the Jews.’”
So yes, those Jews conspired in his death. Not an entire race, within whose bosom the early church was born. But that’s tragically how John’s words have been received and interpreted throughout a twisted history, helping give license to stigmatize Jews as Christ-killers during centuries of pogroms and persecutions.
Hitler polished it to a fine art, calling forth a poison from the minds and hearts of armies of his countrymen and -women, unleashing a barbarism that defiled a nation. The nation of Goethe and Beethoven, Bonhoeffer and Bach, Einstein and Schweitzer. Hitler’s murderous rampage against an entire people, in cynical and perverted vendetta for the death of Christ — while plundering their every asset down to the gold fillings in their teeth — heaped six million victims upon the cross our Savior bore.
But as anti-Semitism didn’t begin with Hitler, so it didn’t end when the allied conquerors opened the gates of Auschwitz to reveal the horrors within. Its mindless bigotry still offers itself as fodder for those who love to hate.
One last word for the day: the word “Not.”
The Sunday of the Big Storm a few weeks ago, a Low Sunday if ever there was one, my daughter Catherine and her family were in town from Houston. Since I had to leave for church before them, my son-in- law Will googled St. Christopher’s for directions.
“Check this out,” he said, as I was walking out the door.
And there, right below the map showing our little dot on the earth’s surface, was a rate-this-site on which appeared only one review. And in that review, only one star out of a possible five, were words that pierced my heart. St. Christopher’s, it declared, “is not a place that is welcoming to visitors.”
It went on to list several things we had done and left undone one Sunday morning, that brought to mind Robert Burns’s poem, “To a Louse on Seeing One on a Lady’s Bonnet in Church.”
O wad some Power the giftie gie us
To see oursels as ithers see us!
“Not a welcoming congregation,” he said. And the louse on my own bonnet said on its nametag: “The priest just said hello after the recessional, did not try to engage.” Those words do hurt. It hurts to think we might have caused a stranger pain and disappointment. It hurts to know we’ve been judged and found wanting.
But where there is darkness may there be light. We’re now up to three stars, thanks to two very nice new reviews. Not exactly unbiased. Rebuttals from home, you might call them.
Offerings of love.
We do love one another, we in this holy place. Love not just the feeling. Love the doing. As one of the prayers in the service of Holy Matrimony puts it: “Give them such fulfillment of their mutual affection that they may reach out in love and concern for others.”
Four small words, picked, they might have been, from a hat—or from a bonnet. Four syllables, four tiny breaths: “low, doubt, Jew, not.” Scarcely strong enough to reach the farthest pew.
Breathe on them, O God. Breathe in them. Invade them, and all our words, with your Word. That they may have purpose and power for life.
Reverend Anne's Sermon - Palm Sunday
I hate having to follow the passion narrative with my frail and pallid words. The yearly reminder of Jesus’ painful suffering and death are hard to take. My instinct is to sit quietly and let it all sink in: that it is we who have just shouted, “Crucify him!”
But preachers are called to preach, and if we feel terrible, we have nothing on the psalmist:
My life is wasted with grief,
and my years with sighing;
my strength fails me because of affliction,
and my bones are consumed...
I am forgotten like a dead man, out of mind;
I am as useless as a broken pot. 1
Here is someone who feels like hell.
We talk a lot about our feelings. Sometimes I think—sometimes I feel—that all we ever do is feel. Even our thoughts are expressed in terms of feelings, as though everything is governed by our gut reactions: “I feel like my car needs to have an oil change.”
René Descartes’ famous statement, Cogito, ergo sum—I think, therefore, I am—defined for his age the question of existence, “I am a substance,” said Descartes, “the whole nature or essence of which is to think, and which for its existence does not need any place or depend on any material thing.”
Whether we contemplate in our study or think on the run, our thoughts knock each other aside to get to the front of our frontal lobe. We can’t stop ourselves from thinking. Although sometimes one wonders.
These days thinking doesn’t get the respect it deserves. We live in an age of anti-intellectualism, an age focused on feelings; and facts are subjective alternatives. Thinking is out.
Our feelings are what matter.
Being something of a head tripper, I sort of enjoy thinking. But there’s no arguing with the pesky fact that our feelings are important indicators of who and what we are. We talk about ourselves as people with whom we are in relationship, in terms of how we feel about ourselves:
“I hate myself for saying that. I feel good about myself today. I was not myself when I said that.”
I’m sure there have been many times in our lives when we have wished we could be spared our feelings. Indeed, we spend vast sums of money on potions that serve to anesthetize our emotions, to lift our spirits with chemical balm.
When I listen in sympathetic impotence to the pain of those who come to me for pastoral care, I wish I could help them not to feel so sharply their pain and distress - the broken marriage, the hopeless diagnosis, the shattered hope, the dream betrayed. But I can only listen and take solace from the knowledge that they will in time be healed by God’s restoring hand, that they may once again behold with tears of joy the tender green of spring that never fails, and cry in grateful praise, “How sweet is life!”
1 Psalm 3:10, 12.
Much as we’d like to escape the pain that is so much a part of being alive, we cannot truly live without it. The cross teaches us that hard lesson.
Shadowlands has taken its place alongside All About Eve and The African Queen as one of my favorite movies - and it has nothing whatsoever to do with whether or not I find Anthony Hopkins madly attractive! Shadowlands is the story of C. S. Lewis’s marriage to the American Joy Gresham and - spoiler alert - of her death.
Lewis has lived his entire adult life within the ivory tower of Oxford, cloistered and secure and dispassionate in his bachelor world, writing and lecturing on “emotions he has never really felt,” offering, as one of his colleagues says, “simple answers to complicated problems.”
Into this sanctuary bursts Mrs. Gresham, an outspoken and acerbic Yankee who allows Lewis no hiding place from the realities of the world. They have scarcely begun to love one another when she is diagnosed with terminal cancer.
During a brief remission he wants only to avoid the pain he knows is coming, to enjoy the moment of respite. But she will have none of it. “The pain,” she tells him, “is part of the happiness. That’s the deal.”
The sense that allows us to feel joy and wonder and beauty and love is the same sense that makes us vulnerable to pain and loss. “Why love,” Lewis asks, “if losing hurts so much? I have no answers anymore,” he confesses, “only the life I’ve lived. Twice in that life I’ve been given [a] choice: as a boy and as a man. The boy chose safety, the man chooses suffering. The pain now is part of the happiness. That’s the deal.”
That is the deal. Pain is part of our happiness, because we know that nothing is forever.
But we’re about to discover once more the recurring miracle. Perhaps I shouldn’t give away the end of the story. Perhaps it’s not fair to reveal the happy ending. Surely we can keep with Christ one final watch, now that his hour is at hand.
But whereas pain is part of our happiness, so happiness arises from our pain. That is the message of Easter. That is what we will celebrate when this Holy Week has passed.
Until then, we watch with Christ, our hearts broken by his suffering, our feelings raw from his wounds; but knowing that once again he will rise, and with him our hope, our joy, and the promise of new life.
Thanks be to God.
Reverend Anne's Sermon - Sunday, April 9, 2017 LENT V
When I bowed my head to reality and put my straw bale casita out in Ft. Davis on the market, I figured I ought to de-clutter, to erase my personhood from the premises so that prospective buyers might picture themselves creating in it their own lives, rather than moving into a museum haunted by the knicks and knacks of its former owner.
One of the first objects of my purge was the refrigerator door, plastered over with the stuff that fridges by nature seem to collect. Photos and grandchildren’s drawings, recipes, handy cards from the propane guy and the local vet, all held in place by an assortment of lifelike magnets in the shape of everything from butterflies to frying pans to guilt-inducing replicas of tiny little scales. I put it all in a box, stuck the box in a cabinet, and went on my way to the next challenge.
But life teaches us that for every act of avoidance there is a day of reckoning; so, sure enough, once the house had changed hands I found myself back home with boxes and boxes of stuff I hadn’t had the sense or fortitude to leave behind at the resale shop or in the dumpster.
Among them was a limp and tattered bumper sticker I’d kept for a laugh and possible sermon fodder for years: “What if the Hokey-Pokey [really] IS what it’s all about?” Such deep existential speculation has remained magnetized to my psyche over the years.
But I am happy to report that in this last week I have done two wonderful things. That is to say, I have done two things that have filled me with wonder and led me to affirm that the Hokey Pokey really isn’t what it’s all about.
That’s not to say these two were the only wonder-filled moments of the week. We had a vestry retreat Thursday night that was full of grace. We ate and talked and listened and let our hair down and fell in love with our church all over again.
And I was the homilist at the funeral of another old friend yesterday. People just will keep on dying! We’re funny that way. But more on that later.
The two wonderful things I wanted to mention this morning were these:
The first was the wedding of my friend Lisa. Lisa started out as my daughters’ friend when they were all at camp together. But to know Lisa is to love her, and now she’s my friend, too.
Lisa and her significant other, Tiffany, were married on Friday evening in Georgetown, and we all went up to witness with our presence and bless with our prayers and good wishes this wonderful, wonder-filled moment. Two lives becoming one, one greater than the sum of its parts.
A holy miracle: a way to see God.
The second thing I did was to put down a deposit on an apartment—and by extension a place where I will live out the rest of my days—in a retirement facility. What I used to call, before I got to be one, an old folks home.
It’s taken me a while—a lifetime—to come to terms with my mortality, but now that I have, I find it supremely liberating. A blessing, really, to myself and, I hope, to those I love.
One of the great selling points of Christianity was its promise that death was not all she wrote. Though we Christians—we human beings—still know in a sort of it’ll-never- happen-to-me kind of way that mortality is not to be quibbled with. Incomprehensible as it may be, and much as I hate to be the one to break the news, unless science takes a quantum leap forward pretty quickly, everyone in this room is a goner. Every single one of us will one day be borne from the church and committed to the elements from which we sprang. There’s just no way around it. It’s built into the system. One of these days, we’re going to shuffle off this mortal coil; rest from our labors; answer the trumpet call; heed the final summons; go to our reward; pass into the great beyond; join the majority. In a word, die. And we might as well get used to it.
As Lazarus could testify.
At least, unlike Lazarus, we won’t have to do it twice, God willing. As the inestimable Barbara Brown Taylor says, Lazarus “is a walking miracle. He has been brought back to life, but it is a temporary reprieve. Sooner or later he will be carried back into his tomb, and this time for good.” 1
The story of Lazarus of Bethany and his sisters Mary and Martha is found only in John’s gospel, where John, the consummate craftsman, depicts Jesus not just telling a story, a parable, to illustrate his message.
Jesus is the message himself.
Goes like this: Jesus is approached on a certain level, the level of the senses: what we can see, hear, smell, touch, taste. And each time, he responds at a different level, the level of the spiritual. So with each tale we come to understand more fully what has been proclaimed by John in the prologue to his gospel: that Jesus of Nazareth is the very Word of God in living flesh.
Jesus is God’s message.
Today’s scene is set. Jesus gets word that his friend Lazarus is sick unto death. After giving him time not just to die but to get good and dead, he sets out for Bethany. Before he arrives, Lazarus’s sisters learn he’s been sighted, and Martha rushes out to meet him.
“Lord, what took you so long?” she cries. “If you’d been here, my brother would not have died.”
“Don’t worry about it, Martha,” says Jesus. “Your bother will rise again.”
“I know he’ll rise again at the resurrection on the last day,” she says, setting up his reply.
And sure enough: “I am resurrection. I’m life.”
What do we make of that?
Because the church uses this passage in the great entrance anthems at the burial office, we assume that what Jesus is talking about is life after death. It’s obvious, isn’t it? “I am the resurrection and the life. He that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live.”
But when we look at it in context, we see that’s not all that was meant.
No, Martha, I’m not talking about the final resurrection. I’m talking about new life, resurrected life, redeemed life NOW!
John gospel was written for a Jewish congregation, whose tradition held that the spirit of one who’d died hovered near the body for three days. But after that, it went off into the darkness, the valley of the dry bones. Lazarus was certifiably beyond recall. Putrefying. Gone.
1 Barbara Brown Taylor, “Without a Net,” from Mixed Blessings (Boston: Cowley Publications 1996), p. 122.
The stage is set for a miracle. A way to see God.
John intends us to look beyond the high drama of the story to perceive its inward and spiritual grace. To discover a truth that lives through the story’s art. That death is the absence of life. And that life is a gift, a gift that comes rushing at us like a dog who’s happy we’ve come home.
It happens when we least expect it. It’s straight from God.
This is birthday time for my daughters. Catherine’s was last Sunday. Sarah’s is today. So on top of the trip to Georgetown for Lisa and Tiffany’s wedding, we had a double birthday supper last night. Lots of laughs as always with that bunch, but through it all a niggling in the back on my mind, a twinge about this morning. The sermon hadn’t come together. It just wasn’t happening. I sat there hoping for a miracle.
“Grandma,” said Sam, as things were winding down, “what’s with that poem you have on your desk? Under the glass. Somebody named Doyle. Is that Bishop Doyle? Did he write that poem.”
“No, I don’t have any Bishop Doyle poems on my desk,” I said, thinking, “What? What poem?”
So after everybody had left or gone to bed I went in and turned on the light over my desk, and there it was. Yellowed by the seven years since I’d cut it out of the paper and stuck it under the glass so I wouldn’t lose it. Written by Brian Doyle and published in the Times on September 20, 2010. Like Lazarus in the tomb, just lying there waiting to be called to life again.
ON 155 TH STREET,
IN THE BOROUGH OF MANHATTAN,
IN THE SEETHING CITY OF NEW YORK,
A girl in a wheelchair is being towed up the
steep hill to Broadway
By a guy maybe her brother or her
boyfriend, both of them dressed
For the formal reception they just escaped
and both of them laughing
So hard that I start laughing too, you know
what I mean, irresistible
Giggling, and he’s working like a mule, he’s
working like Sisyphus
In reverse, his suit jacket and tie flapping in
the breeze, her flowery
Dress rippling, she’s holding onto his right
arm with both her hands
And he’s pumping his knees like a fullback
against gravity’s tackle,
And by God if he doesn’t do it, he hauls her
all the way to the light,
Where he bends over to catch his breath
and her shrieks of laughter
Are almost the coolest sound I ever heard in
all my life, my sons’
First sucks, my daughter’s mewling, a
woman saying quietly “Yes” on
A hill by the sea, the scuffle of snow, the
wheedle of thrushes, owls
Murmuring to each other, roaring music,
last words, newborn songs,
But the sweet shards of that girl’s laughter
up at the top of the street,
Man, I was lucky enough, or chosen, to hear that, and I mutter ‘Amen.’ 2
Reverend Anne's Sermon - Sunday, April 2, 2017 LENT IV
We’re in the home stretch. It’s the fourth Sunday of Lent. Two more to go.
Chocolate’s on the horizon.
We’ve heard a lot these last weeks about some heavy things. Repentance and remorse, fasting and prayer, sacrifice and alms-giving—the observance of a holy Lent in preparation for the bright promise of Easter.
So here at midpoint it’s time to take a quick break, to pause for a bit of levity in the form of a tired old clunker. I'd say stop me if you've heard it-- especially if I might have been the one who told it -- but if I did and you did, then what?
We press on.
It’s the ancient tale of the agnostic fleas who run into each other one day out in the great fur forest. They’re standing around in the midst of the all this hair, discussing life and death and ultimate reality. One flea turns to the other and says, “You know, I sometimes wonder if there really IS a Dog.”
Sometimes we can’t see the dog for the fur, the forest for the trees. Sometimes we’re just plain blind to what’s all around us. We’re like people in a room full of music:
Beethoven’s symphonies, the oratorios of Bach, the operas of Mozart and Verdi and Puccini and Strauss. Down-home fiddling and rock and roll, jazz and hip hop; Elvis and Aretha. the Dixie Chicks and the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, all singing and playing their hearts out. And we can’t hear a thing…until we turn on the radio. We’re like the man born blind: we have eyes but cannot see, ears but cannot hear. And so our prayer ascends, “Open our eyes [O God] to see your hand at work in the world around us.”
The blind beggar in John’s gospel is a symbol of the eye-opening power of God. This is not someone who is just a little nearsighted. This is a man who has been born into darkness, who has never seen light.
So what Jesus does with a little spittle and a dab of mud is not just cure a common handicap. He creates a new person. As God formed Adam from the dust of the earth, so Jesus reformed, recreated a new being, one whose life is forever changed. He’s like Genesis’ symbol of creation, when God said, “Let there be light.”
Human experience of the holy is often introduced by a sensation of light. Paul on the road to Damascus. Jesus on the mount of transfiguration. God’s light pierces the darkness of our stunted sight, illumines our shuttered lives, opens for us a vision of grace, a new way of life.
Scripture sees God’s enlightening the world as mileposts in our “salvation history.” The Bible is the story of how a people beheld God at work among them — leading, comforting, healing, restoring — and how they came to see themselves in the light of that revelation.
This morning we've had a trip down Memory Lane, stopping at some of the high points in salvation history, the story of God’s guiding light.
There's Isaiah's prophecy of God's servant sent to establish justice and set us on the right path; Lamentation's rehearsal of why we need help in the first place, crippled as we are by a sense of our unworthiness; the psalmist's beautiful words of God as our tender Shepherd leading us beside still waters; Paul's proclamation of the power of the cross; Hebrew's extolling Christ as our great high priest; and Paul’s wrapping it all up in the love of Christ that makes of us God's new creation, the old passing away, the new within us.
Our usual epistle for the Fourth Sunday in Lent is Paul's Letter to the Ephesians.
Paul’s metaphor of light as a sign of the saving, transforming power of God. “For once you were darkness,” he writes.
Not once you were in darkness; you were very darkness itself.
“Once you were darkness. But now in the Lord you are light. Live as children of light—for the fruit of the light is found in all that is good and right and true.”
The fruit of the light: all that is good and right and true. A new life arises out of a new understanding of who we are. We are children of light.
Illumination is one of the most common metaphors for those “aha” moments, those epiphanies that cast things in a new light. Like the cartoon character with a light bulb over his head. The bulb clicks on. The light dawns. Our old image of the world is turned upside down. We’re forced to refocus as a new vision emerges.
Here’s what that looks like in the flesh.
The late John Walker, Episcopal Bishop of Washington, D.C., was once asked to assist at the wedding of a former parishioner who was being married in a Roman Catholic Church.
When Bishop Walker arrived for the ceremony, he found an elderly monsignor asleep in a corner of the sacristy. Not wanting to disturb him, he quietly got into his vestments and was standing around twiddling his thumbs when the priest finally roused himself.
After a few pleasantries, the monsignor asked, “Did you bring a Prayer Book?”
What a question to ask an Episcopalian! “Yes, Father,” said Bishop Walker. “I brought a Prayer Book.”
“Good,” said the priest. “Pick any prayer you want. You can say it at the end of the service.” For Jews did not share things in common with Samaritans, as we heard last week.
“All right, Monsignor,” said Bishop Walker. “And now tell me, were you once by any chance the parish priest at Our Lady of Sorrows in Detroit?”
“Why, yes,” said the priest. “Wonderful parish. Beautiful church. Great people.
Best place I ever served.”
“And when you were in Detroit did you happen to drive a big black Reo?”
“Yes, yes,” he said. “Finest car I ever owned. Loved that car.”
“Do you happen to remember a bunch of kids who used to play stickball in the alley behind your garage?”
“Sure do,” said Monsignor. “They were always back there playing. Saw ‘em every time I came home. Great bunch of kids.”
“And do you remember one of them in particular, a little black kid who used to run open the garage door for you whenever he saw you coming down the alley?”
“I remember that kid,” said the priest. “Fine little fellow. Wonder whatever happened to him.”
“Monsignor,” said Bishop Walker, “I am that little black boy.”
Whereupon the priest burst into tears, fell on the bishop’s neck in a fierce embrace, and sobbed, “Bishop, you can do anything in the service you want to do. We’ll do it together, you and I.”
That’s called incarnation. The “it” becomes a “thou.” A thing is made flesh. The hazy outlines of abstraction take living form. A new light penetrates our murky corners.
Our sure convictions pale beside the floodlit truth of “thou.”
Jesus tells the Pharisees, “I came into this world…so that those who do not see may see.” To see through his eyes.
To see by the light of Christ.
That in his light we may see light.
Sunday, March 19, 2017 Lent III
Seems like everywhere we turn these days we’re bombarded by numbers.
Good numbers. Bad numbers. Numberless numbing numbers. From the national debt and the fluctuations of the Dow Jones Average. To the ups and downs of how-we-doin’ polls, to housing prices and miles to the gallon, we’re peppered by metrics.
I suppose that’s why I was struck by the little flags of information in today’s gospel, small numeric semaphores waving along the path of our pursuit of meaning. Like the breadcrumbs scattered by Hansel and Gretel as they made their way through the forest, we can — if the birds don’t come along and scarf them up — see such telling gestures throughout much of Scripture that indicate where the biblical writers were coming from and where they were going as they tell their stories of salvation.
I’m not talking Da Vinci Code, secrets only its initiates can decipher, but the way the Bible includes these little digits, those pop-up pointers that say, “Pay attention!” Often a writer will assign a number to a place or person or event that he knows will resonate with his audience, so that when you run across these numeric clues, you know something’s going on beyond mere statistical information.
You’re sure to have seen that three represents completeness: beginning, middle, end. The three parts of the created order, heaven, earth, and the underworld. Jesus tempted three times by Satan. Three primary patriarchs: Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.
Four is important for its four cardinal directions: north, south, east, west; the four rivers flowing out of Eden to water the world; the four living creatures surrounding God in the Book of Revelation, the four evangelists: Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, four ways of telling one sacred story. Tack a zero onto four and it’s even stronger: forty days of rain flooded the earth beneath Noah’s ark; the Israelites wandered forty years in the wilderness before reaching the promised land; Jesus fasted forty days and nights after his baptism before taking up his ministry. Forty was standard preparation for new life.
Seven represents completeness and perfection: God rested on the seventh day; on the Sabbath year the land itself was allowed to lie fallow before the next year’s planting. Joseph made points with Pharaoh by interpreting his dream of seven fat years of prosperity and seven lean years of famine; Jesus cast out seven demons, multiplied seven loaves, sent out seventy disciples and taught to forgive seventy times seven.
And after every forty-ninth year, seven squared, came the fiftieth, the Jubilee, when all Jewish bond-servants were released from indenture and land that had been sold reverted to its former owners. Numbers do have significance.
And numbers are something the original community of John’s gospel would have picked up on right away when they heard our reading this morning about the much-married woman at Jacob’s well. Remember Jesus’ earlier response in Matthew’s gospel to the Sadducees who tried messing with his mind with their question about the pecking order in heaven among the much-married?
“Now there were seven brothers among us,” writes Matthew. “The first married, and died, and having no children left his wife to his brother." (And if you think I’m going to linger over the whole “left his wife to his brother” thing, you’d be mistaken. That’s not a ditch I’m prepared to die in... today.)
Anyway: “So too the second and third, down to the seventh. After them all, the woman died. [Poor thing!] In the resurrection, therefore, to which of the seven will she be wife? For they all had her.”
Jesus’ answer to that one was, more or less: “Who gives a hoot?” But here he pays attention to the numbers. In John’s story this morning the woman at the well has three strikesagainst her: she is a hated Samaritan, she is a woman, and she is a bad, bad girl, living with a man who is not her husband. You know her social status is in the tank from the fact that she’s hanging out alone at the well at noon. The community well was the first century equivalent of the office water cooler, a place where all the respectable women gathered each morning to visit and gossip. But she’s there alone. Numerically incomplete. She’s had five husbands and a live-in boyfriend.
More than three. Not yet seven. She’s definitely off kilter.
None of this seems to matter to Jesus. He chats her up right off the bat. A cynic might suggest he must have been weakened by heat and thirst to breach the gender and sinner gap. But it doesn’t faze him. “Give me a drink,” he asks. And as one might expect, she has a mouth on her. “Are you nuts?” she says. Or words to that effect. “What do you want of me?”
Jesus being Jesus, he’s got her number. He knows who she is. He knows what she needs. He wants to give her something. He wants to give her life. In exchange for a sip from her unclean Samaritan hand he offers her the promise of a life-giving drink, “a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.”
This intimate moment with a stranger transforms the woman’s reality. She’s been seen—and accepted—for who she is. It gives her courage to face those she thought she could never face again. She has met the Christ, the Messiah, the hope of a people starved for hope.
“Come and see!” she calls.
Like the woman at the well, we all thirst for someone who knows us, knows us at our depths and loves us anyway, who answers our longings for a world that makes sense, someone who can bind up the unraveled threads of our lives. What thirsty stranger might satisfy our own thirst? Where do we find this living water?
History is full of stories of looking for love in all the wrong places, of wrong choices and their numberless consequences.
The Psalmist’s warning, “Put not your trust in princes,” was ruefully uttered by Thomas Wentworth, Earl of Strafford, advisor to Charles I, when he learned he’d been sold out by the king. In the choice between divided loyalties to either King or Commons, Stafford had cast his lot with the king. The king who’d promised his royal protection. The king who eventually acceded to the demands of Parliament and signed the warrant for Stafford’s death.
“Too late for Herpicide,” as my mother used to say in place of “I told you so.” He probably should have had the king’s number. For when Charles succeeded his father James I as King of England, he “inherited ... a profound belief in the Divine Right of Kings, ... [and] was prepared to put his beliefs into practice and govern his kingdom according to [the] theory... that ‘Kings are not only God’s lieutenants here below and sit upon God’s thrones, but even by God
Himself are called gods.’
“Charles, soon after his accession, declared ‘I owe the account of my actions to God alone.’ ,,, [He] regarded himself as above the law. He could make laws and unmake them without consulting his people. He could make a solemn promise one day and break it the next if it suited him to do so. A king could do no wrong.”1.
It didn’t end well for Charles, either, we know. The civil wars between King and Parliament ended in his arrest and trial for the treasonable use of his power to pursue his personal interest rather than the good of the country. The court challenged the doctrine of sovereign immunity, and proposed that “the King of England was not a person, but an office whose every occupant was entrusted with a limited power to govern” … according to the laws of the land and not otherwise.’”
So said the court.
Charles himself took his judgment personally, and “blamed his fate on [his] betrayal of his loyal friend ...: An unjust sentence that I suffered to take effect, is punished now by an unjust
sentence on me.” No mention of the more than 300,000 souls, one-sixth of the population, who had perished during the years of civil strife.
We want, we need, to be able to trust, to give our hearts to offer our loyal service. But can any one person, no matter how winsome, meet that need? The fact that we continue to project our longing onto mere mortals tells us something not about the object of our affections but about ourselves. It tells us that we thirst for relation, for relevance, for meaning. We long to give ourselves over to something greater than ourselves, something—someone—who fills our emptiness, touches our secret places, makes of us something greater than we could be alone.
But we have only one Messiah, only one on whom to pin our ultimate hopes, one who, in the always spot-on words of Barbara Brown Taylor, “shows [us] who [we] are by showing [us] who he is — who crosses all boundaries, breaks all rules, drops all disguises…[who bubbles] up in [our lives] like a well that needs no dipper.”
The living water of spirit and truth, springing from no human reservoir, but from the dew of God’s eternal grace. That washes away the disappointments we find in ourselves and in one another.
Ours for the drinking. Come and see.
1 J. R. H. Moorman, A history of The Church in England, 3 rd ed. (Wilton, Connecticut: Morehouse-Barlow,)