The Quickening

On May 27, 1537, the bells of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London rang through the air.  Bonfires were lit all over the city, and free wine was distributed to the poor.  Spontaneous celebrations spread outward through the countryside.  As far away as Oxford, people crowded into churches to give praise to God.  And why?  One Oxford preacher said it best from the pulpit.  “Like one given of God,” he boomed, “the child quickened in the mother’s womb.”[i]

The mother of whom the preacher spoke was Queen Jane Seymour, wife of King Henry VIII.  The child was the future King Edward VI, the prince for which king and country had forever longed.  The identities are still well-known to us, but that verb is archaic.  We no longer use it and may have lost its meaning: “The child quickened in the mother’s womb.”

The Seymour Brothers: The Messiest Family In The Tudor Court
Jane Seymour and Edward VI

Prior to our modern era, there was no more important or momentous occasion in a pregnancy than the quickening.  It was the moment at which the mother first felt the baby move within her womb.  Practically, until the age of sonograms, the quickening was the surest indicator that a woman was, in fact, pregnant.  Legally, the quickening was a moment of distinction.  For instance, a pregnant criminal could be executed prior to the quickening but not after.   Philosophically and theologically, ancient thinkers as far back as Aristotle considered that the moment of quickening coincided with “ensoulment,” the animation of a fetus into a life.

But beyond even all of this, and even as the term has fallen completely out of use, the quickening alludes to something both more profound and intimate.  In the eighteenth century, Mary Wollstonecraft wrote after the quickening of her child, “I begin to love this little creature and to anticipate his birth as a fresh twist to a knot, which I do not wish to untie.”

That resonates with me, though admittedly, of course, no father has ever actually experienced a quickening.  That first flutter is an encounter solely between mother and child.  Even so, I remember being slack-jawed and stupefied some weeks later, the first time Jill took my hand and placed it on her stomach, when Griffin shifted, and I felt within Jill a life.  A fresh twist to the knot, indeed.

That feeling is more than joy, more than wonder, more than relief.  Even though it is hoped for and expected, the quickening is nevertheless the stop-you-in-your tracks end of a world.  With the barely-detectable brush of a tiny foot or elbow, everything that has gone before plummets in relative importance, and everything that lies ahead is miraculous with possibility.  Though the child is still far from birth, every priority shifts in that moment.  The focus of every concern changes.  Where we were the center of our lives, we now see that we live to protect, support, form, and raise this child we do not yet see.  The very what and why for which one lives alters radically, and all with a flutter.

Whether the womb is that of queen or pauper, Cathedral bells should ring.  Wine should be shared (though not with the pregnant mother!) and toasts made.  Preachers should proclaim the wonder and grace of God.  With a quickening, something new has announced that it will enter into our world, and with each entrance the cosmos is made new.

It is the quickening of John that Elizabeth experiences in today’s Gospel.  Luke the Evangelist tells us, “In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leapt in her womb.”

Church of the Visitation - Wikiwand
The wonderful statue of Elizabeth meeting Mary at the Church of the Visitation in the Holy Land

For Elizabeth, this moment has been a lifetime in coming.  She was barren and far beyond the possibility of childbearing by any worldly means.  Elizabeth’s and her husband Zechariah’s lives had long been lived through the hard experience of what the world offers and what it withholds.  Yes, some months prior the angel Gabriel visited Zechariah and promised John to them, but the message was so unbelievable, the life-changing promise so impossible, that Zechariah literally had no words to voice it.  Until this moment, the angel’s promise was ephemeral and unreal.  Until this quickening. 

Mary approaches, the baby leaps, and the world changes.  Neither John nor Jesus is yet near birth.  The pain of delivery is months away, the fearful flight to Egypt further away still.  The parents’ apprehensive witness to Jesus’ precocious upbringing and John’s wild streak is on the distant horizon.  John’s execution, followed by Jesus’ crucifixion, won’t occur for decades.  Easter morning is still unfathomable.  Yes, and yes, and yes.  But it is at this moment that the world tilts on its axis.  It is this moment when, for Elizabeth and Mary (and I daresay for Zechariah and Joseph, too) everything changes.  You cannot un-feel the quickening.  The child—in this case the both the harbinger John and the savior Jesus—have made known that they are alive, and gestating, and readying themselves to enter our world.  And for those who love them, or who anticipate loving them, it is the quickening rather than the birth that reorients life.  It is the quickening that grants the realization that the Messiah is not theoretical—not a theological concept or a vague hope, but actual, and real, and poised to incarnate God in our midst—that jolts us out of our old reality and into this stupefying new one.  It is the quickening that opens Mary’s mouth and fills her lungs, that gives voice to the Magnificat.

Friends, this is what Advent is all about.  As much as I love all the cozy preparations for Christmas, the right frame of reference isn’t hot cocoa and eggnog.  The right frame is that completely unexpected, unpreparable moment when we feel the flutter and cannot deny it; when we know that, through the new hasn’t quite yet been born, everything is already different; when—on a dime—everything that long held value and our attention is meaningless compared to what we know comes next. Do you understand what I’m talking about?  Every mother does.  Every father does.  Indeed, anyone who has ever placed a palm on a pregnant stomach and felt the uncanny, wondrous, eye-watering, Cheshire cat-grinning movement of new life knows how it changes everything.  That’s where we are this day.  That’s what we’re supposed to feel a week before the Nativity.  The world we’ve been walking through until this moment isn’t the world in front of us.  What that old world offers and what it withholds isn’t the whole story.  To be sure, as in the lives to come for Elizabeth and Mary, there will be pain, and apprehension, and bewilderment, and sorrow.  But there will also be revelation, and grace, and resurrection when we least expect these things.  Because the Incarnate God is alive, and gestating, and preparing to be born among us.  This is the moment that shifts every priority and refocuses all concern.  Where we were the center of our lives, we now see that we live to serve this child we do not yet see.  Let the bells peal!  Pass around the wine!  Light the fires!  Let the preachers boom!  This is the quickening. 

Why are church bells ringing today at 6pm across the country? -  Buckinghamshire Live

[i] https://slate.com/human-interest/2015/05/the-quickening-the-momentous-pregnancy-event-that-became-a-relic.html.  All descriptions of quickening come from this article, including the Mary Wollstonecraft quote.

The Girl From Yesterday

In 1994, fourteen years after their acrimonious breakup, the Eagles came together for a new album and worldwide tour.  The dissension that led to the group’s disintegration had been so rancorous that, when earlier asked about a reunion tour, drummer Don Henley said it would happen “when Hell freezes over.”  So naturally, the Eagles titled their new album, “Hell Freezes Over.”  Mostly, the album was a compilation of live, acoustic versions of Eagles hits: “Hotel California,” “Take It Easy,” “Tequila Sunrise”.  But there were a few new songs, including one by Glen Frey entitled, “The Girl from Yesterday.”

How the Eagles Reunited for 'Hell Freezes Over'
The Eagles on the “Hell Freezes Over” Tour

In the song, a man leaves a woman.  He not only abandons the relationship, but also the town, state, and country where they live.  He boards a plane without so much as a backward glance, and the woman is left with her yearning.  The last line of the first stanza reveals, “And she became the girl from yesterday.”

Fast forward years, and the woman still waits on the man.  She keeps vigil, never wavering, faithful and true, in hopes that he’ll come home.  The song’s bridge says:

She doesn’t know what’s right, she doesn’t know what’s wrong
She only knows the pain that comes from waiting so long
And she doesn’t count the teardrops that she’s cried while he’s away
Because she knows deep in her heart that he’ll be back someday…

I got to thinking about that Eagles song, now twenty-seven years old itself, because, though we’re all still sluffing off the effects of Thanksgiving tryptophan, today is the First Sunday of Advent.  Our posture, our horizon, our mindset changes on this day.  Today we enter into the Church’s great season of waiting.

What are we waiting for?  Well, the children among us—and the child within us—will say that we are waiting for Christmas, the Nativity, the birth—again—of the Christ child.  That’s not wrong.  We’ll pile into the Cathedral on Christmas Eve in celebration of exactly that coming.  But there may be danger if that’s only, or even primarily, what Advent waiting is all about.  Because Christmas, when it comes, is so often backward-looking.  It can be all about custom and an annual return to a gauzy past, where (in our faulty memory, at least) we felt comfortable, and content, and secure. 

In our present world, in which so much is in flux and nothing seems sure, that backward-looking waiting for the return of what was can occupy our whole attention, but it can also bring its own sort of pain.  We can cling to that past so tightly that we become calcified, trapped so that we cannot move.  Like the woman in the Eagles song, we become a modern-day Miss Havisham, living lives in which time has stopped and everything is arrested, hoping against hope that the world will go back to what it was in the ideal of our memory.  The last stanza of “The Girl from Yesterday” says:

The light’s on in the window, she’s waiting by the phone
Talking to a memory that’s never coming home
She dreams of his returning and the things that he might say
But she’ll always be the girl from yesterday
Yeah, she’ll always be the girl from yesterday.

wait | Saving Love

In our backward pining for the return of what was, we may become stunted in our willingness and ability to look forward to what can be.   And that gets us to the other way of conceiving of Advent.  We don’t talk much about it in Christianity anymore, and we especially don’t talk about it in the Episcopal Church, but Advent is the season in which we are called to wait upon not only the coming of Christmas again and again and again, but also to wait upon the Second Coming of Christ.

We ignore this doctrine of the Church in some embarrassment, I think, for two reasons.  First, because it gets confused with the odious, modern notion of the Rapture, that ridiculous and fabricated theological idea tied to John Nelson Darby.  Second, because we’ve lost our sense of the mythical, and we take too literally the images of Jesus returning on a cloud, or with a double-edged sword in his mouth like some sort of cosmic circus performer.  Nevertheless, it is one of the tragedies of contemporary Christianity that we ignore doctrines that have granted hope for millennia because we fail to understand them.

The doctrine of the Second Coming of Christ is simply this: When Jesus first lived among us, he embodied in his person the intentions of God: The ways we are to be faithful, and courageous, and love.  If ever we want to know what God is like, and how God calls us to be, we need only look at the person of Jesus.  When Jesus comes a second time, those intentions of God—that fidelity, courage, and love—will wash over the whole creation.  What was circumscribed in a single man, in the backwater of the world, will instead abide in all of us and all of our relationships.  The whole world will be consumed, healed, and fulfilled, by grace.  The brokenness, the shattering not-rightness-of-it-all will be mended into a wholeness we can scarcely imagine. 

Why wouldn’t we retain such a doctrine?  Why wouldn’t we preach it first and foremost?  Why wouldn’t it be what we are waiting for?

Because it won’t be easy.  The advent of something new never is.  Healing never is.  Whether physical, emotional, psychological, or spiritual, moving from what was into what can be—moving from yesterday to tomorrow—is often a painful process.  But it is exactly the opposite pain from the that experienced by “The Girl from Yesterday.”  Her pain was the pining, ultimately hopeless kind, the pain that comes from the wishful thinking that the past—which was never as ideal as our memory claims anyway—will return unaltered.  The pain of waiting on the return of Christ is, rather, like growing pains, the pain that knows the past must be allowed to die so that the future can be born.  Among other things, it begs the question, “What must change in me before I can be ready for Christ’s return?”  This is why the Advent readings talk of destruction and dismantling, so that we recognize that the old world of our pining, prejudice, and preconception must be let go in order to be ready, open-eyed and open-hearted, for the coming of Christ.  This is why the Book of Revelation includes twenty long chapters describing what must pass away before God says, “See, I’m making all things new.”[i]

I hope the character of our waiting in this season won’t be a vigil for the return of  the false ideal of a lost past, either personal or corporate.  Let’s instead wait in hope for the new thing God will do, in us, among us, and throughout our suffering world, when God will fulfill God’s promise to heal all brokenness, dispel all loneliness, and dry all tears. I’m already looking forward to Christmas.  There’s nothing wrong with that.  But even more, I’m looking forward to Jesus’ return, to the grace that will wash over the whole world in God’s good time, mending and making whole, ushering in goodness and grace.  Advent has begun.  And so, we wait.  With faith that moves mountains and hope eternal, we wait. 


[i] Revelation 21:5

Thanksgivings

Last year at Thanksgiving, though I didn’t get COVID (thank goodness) the pandemic nevertheless hit me like a ton of bricks.  Thanksgiving has long been for me the singular annual holiday unsullied by materialism, commercialism, and culture wars.  For me, Thanksgiving is all about relationship—both with God and with one another—and last year for good reason all our relations remained physically distant.  Because we love one another, we stayed far apart.  I can’t adequately express to you how much that wounded me.  My own family gathered only on computer screens over the holiday for a cross-country Zoom, but in some ways that merely added to the sense of loss.  Perhaps none of us recognized just how vitally important, and how fragilely precious, the immediate and tactile relationship with family is until it was denied us.

Thanksgiving Day in the United States | Britannica

Of course, we aren’t out of the COVID woods yet.  But then, we’re never really out of the woods, are we?  There is always something lurking in the darkness, waiting to pounce.  Thanksgiving is about remembering to embrace a posture of gratitude even as the perpetual shadows threaten.  And this year, we have so very much to be thankful for.  First and foremost, and with a humility that makes me want to drop to my knees and put my face in the earth, I am thankful for COVID vaccines and the women and men who have worked tirelessly to develop them. 

I am thankful for a Cathedral family whose faith has not wavered in these long months, who have continued to pray and praise, care for the weak and lonely, and support the ministry of this place in every way. 

If you’ll indulge me, I am thankful for my health, and for the way this community cared for me last spring while I recuperated.

I am thankful for my family, both my side and Jill’s, who will be with us in person this Thanksgiving, to break bread on Thursday and watch the Razorbacks beat Mizzou on Friday.  (Woo, pig!)

In a season not entirely unlike our own, through the Prophet Joel God rejoices with God’s people Israel that a hugely challenging time is subsiding, and days of celebration are on the horizon.  God says:

“Do not fear, O soil; be glad and rejoice, for the Lord has done great things!  Do not fear, you animals of the field, for the pastures of the wilderness are green; the tree bears its fruit, the fig tree and vine give their full yield.  O children of Zion, be glad and rejoice in the Lord your God; for he has given the early rain for your vindication…  The threshing-floors shall be full of grain, the vats shall overflow with wine and oil…  You shall eat in plenty and be satisfied, and praise the name of the Lord your God, who has dealt wondrously with you.”

Several years ago I came across a poem by Texan Dan Stone that speaks this truth exceptionally well, but in our own, more modern context.  Each time I read it, I imagine an American prophet not unlike Joel himself, reminding his family of what’s important as light begins to scatter darkness, of what they should remember, and of the blessings bestowed upon them by a beneficent God.  Here is Dan Stone’s poem:

Thanksgiving And Thankstaking


We meet here again to share what will become but memories
    of feelings too soon past that we hold close right now.

Our cause is simple, our purpose gentle, a gathering of good
    friends sharing a few moments, watching each other grow in
    body and soul.

       With no gifts to wrap,
          no candles to blow out,
          no heroes to honor,
          no resolutions to make.

       With no clothes to show off,
          no rings to finger,
          no documents to sign,
          no faces to mask.

      With no candy to give,
          no flags to wave,
          no cigars to pass out,
          no thoughts shared without caring.

Just pausing here and now, enjoying the best of each other,
    relaxing for the moment, ignoring what may come.
Recreating pieces of previous meetings, while merging what’s
    past with what is, as memories of feelings become feelings
    of memories.

Holding each other close, pushing away the darkness, keeping
    each other out of the cold.

Thankful for each and hopeful for all, a family of sorts, together.

Recognizing the plain simple joy of getting ourselves outside
    and getting outside ourselves.

Outside, to remind us that thanks inside may become
    imprisoned, lacking freedom to be exchanged as thanks
    given for thanks taken.

So we have returned to this place in our hearts, completing
    our tour of a year’s offerings, harvesting our thanks by
    being together.

Same time, same place, same friends, same things, yet all as
    different as these feelings.

There’s not much I’d rather do than mark these cycles with you.

So, please pass the turkey, and maybe a little of that dressing!!

          Amen.

What if God shows up?

Isaiah is having a bad time of it.  His king—King Uzziah of Judah—has died.  Political uncertainty at home couldn’t have come at a worse time.  Israel, the kingdom just to the north, has formed an alliance with Syria, and sabers are rattling.  Isaiah reacts by going to church—think of our similar reaction on September 11, 2001, when churches were filled.  Isaiah goes to the temple to offer his prayers to God, but I wonder if the desperation of his tiny nation’s circumstances renders his petitions hollow.  In other words, he likely doesn’t kneel in prayer expecting much of a response other than the echo of his own voice off the temple walls.  When we’re honest, do any of us?

          Simon is having a bad time of it.  The line between subsistence and starvation for a Galilean fisherman is a fine one.  Hasn’t it always been that way for small business owners?  All night Simon and his crew have fished, hoping the cool night air would lure the fish out of their languor.  No luck.  In the early morning Simon rows back to the shore to clean distressingly empty nets.  There will be nothing to sell this day, and little to eat.  To a wife, a family, and—lest we forget—a live-in mother-in-law, he will come home empty-handed.  The man Simon sees standing on the bank speaking to the crowd is an added distraction, and a worrisome one.  Even in the countryside, the Romans don’t like large crowds.  And now the man has walked to Simon’s own boat and stepped aboard so as to be better seen by the people.  Simon sighs at his ill luck.  His day is going from bad to worse.

______________

The sound that erupts around Isaiah as his eyes are downcast in what he thinks is futile prayer is not his own voice.  Of that he’s sure.  He raises his eyes, and what he sees takes his breath away.  There is a throne, and upon it sits One who is indescribable.  All Isaiah can think to report is that the presence of this One seems to fill the whole temple, a space much larger than this church.  Around the throne fly seraphs, higher than angels, who leave a trail of incensed smoke in their wake and thunder with praise for the One on the throne.  This is God, and for a moment Isaiah is stricken dumb.  What do you do when you pray, not really expecting a response, and God shows up?

_______________

Simon endures the sermon of the man who has invaded his boat, but then the preacher turns to Simon himself and says, “Let’s go fishing.”

Simon responds, “Master” (and we can imagine a bit of sarcasm in the way he uses the title) “we—who do this for a living—have fished all night and caught nothing.”

“No,” Jesus replies, “put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch.”

Simon expects nothing but a wasted day, but with the watchful eye of the crowd upon him, what can he do?  He trolls out to the center of the lake and lowers the nets.  By the immediate creaking and listing of the boat, Simon knows something is wrong—no, not wrong, but different.  The nets fill to bursting.  They begin to tear under the strain of what they bear.  In desperation, Simon calls to nearby boats for help.  The answer to a prayer, he realizes, is sometimes more difficult to bear than the absence of one.  And his eyes turn to Jesus with wonder and some fear.

__________________

What do we expect when we lift our prayers to God?  What do we expect when we come here, to this place, on an autumn Sunday morning?  Not a whole lot, I suspect: A liturgy that flows well.  A friendly smile from a neighbor and a hand-sanitized handshake from the priest.  A hot cup of delicious Cathedral coffee, maybe.  And the sense of fulfilled duty that comes from saying the words of the prayers.  But most days our expectations aren’t a lot different than those of Isaiah or Simon Peter.

Why is that?  Is it part and parcel of the skepticism that comes from our contemporary age?  Or, is the nadir of our expectation like that of Isaiah and Simon, whose lives have simply demonstrated to them that more often than not the world wins?  Or, might we actually prefer that God stay in God’s heaven and leave us alone?  Are we, deep down, a little worried about what might happen if God showed up?

In her book Teaching a Stone to Talk, Annie Dillard asks, “Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke?  Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it?  The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning.  It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets.  Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews.  For the sleeping god may awake someday…[and] may draw us out to where we can never return.”[i]

TNT vs. Dynamite: What's the Difference? | Mental Floss

When God shows up in answer to Simon’s prayer he says, “I call you out into the deep waters, and you will fish for people.”

When God shows up in answer to Isaiah’s prayer, he places a live coal on Isaiah’s lips and compels Isaiah to speak.  “Here I am,” Isaiah says, “Send me!”

God shows up, and Isaiah and Simon see God.  As Annie Dillard warns, God changes them both and compels them to speak and follow, and they can never return to what they were before.

________________

Sitting in a musty gothic classroom in 1997 at the University of Chicago, a Lutheran friend named Jay Alanis looked me squarely in the eye and said, “Barkley, God is here, doing something with you.”

“No Jay,” I responded, “I’m too much a heathen for God.”

“But Barkley,” Jay pursued with a light behind his eyes that wasn’t his own, “It’s heathens God calls.”

_________________

It is prophets.  It is fishermen.  It is skeptics.  It is the down-and-out.  It is heathens.  It is you and it is me whose prayers God answers, whom God visits and God calls.  God shows up and fills our nets at the most unexpected times and in the most unexpected ways.  If we call upon God, we’d better be ready for our lives to be thrown off balance and the wings of seraphs to graze our faces.  When God shows up, God doesn’t leave us where we are and like we are.  God moves us from the shallows in life and into the deep water.  God will put a live coal to our mouths, and we’ll find we have to speak.

The Burning Coal: Eucharist in the Old Testament – St. Paul Center

That’s the hard part, isn’t it?  That’s why we claim, with Isaiah and Simon, that we’re not worthy.  What will it look like to speak a word of God—of God’s grace, God’s love, and God’s son Jesus—not just here but out there?  How will our lives change if God pays a visit?  Where will we go?  What will we give up?  How will others look at us differently?  In what ways will we be forced to cry out to our brothers and sisters because we admit—perhaps for the first time—that our nets are tearing and we can’t make it without their help?  The answer to a prayer, we realize, sometimes may at first seem more difficult to bear than the absence of one. 

More difficult and infinitely more blessed.  Isaiah finds that the strength given him by God looses his tongue to speak words of wonder, love, and praise.  Simon Peter experiences relationship and redemption in Jesus that transforms him from backward, ego-centered, ruffian into the greatest of apostles.  In fits and starts, the heathen standing before you meets the saving grace of God that empowers me to tell you I need you and I love you, that I am a sinner but I want to be a saint.

I’ll sit down, and we’ll confess our faith, and we’ll pray.  We’ll ask God to meet us here and in our lives.  I hope we mean it.  You may want to put on your crash helmet.


[i] Dillard, Annie.  Teaching a Stone to Talk, pp. 52-53.

Hang all the law and the prophets!: A Halloween Homily

Well, here we are gathered for the Holy Eucharist on All Hallows Eve—Halloween—the day before All Saints Day, when the ghouls and the ghosts romp.  It is well-known that I love all things Celtic, and the Celts were preoccupied by this day, when the veil became especially thin and things spooky could pass over from the other side to our world.  I was tempted to suspend the lectionary and preach on Halloween, but then I worried that my esteemed predecessors in this pulpit might haunt me for it, so I’ve decided instead merely to open this sermon with a few corny Halloween jokes:

Why don’t mummies have friends? Because they’re too wrapped up in themselves.

Why did the vampire read the newspaper? He heard it had great circulation.

Why did the headless horseman go to business school? He wanted to get ahead in life.

Why do skeletons have low self-esteem? They have no body to love.

Halloween: Ghosts, Goblins, Treats, and Dancing? – The Matador Messenger

There are some real stories from Christ Church Cathedral lore that are worthy of Halloween.  The first is, of course, of the body supposedly buried somewhere on our campus.  Only Ardell and Canon Logan knew the who, what, and where, and they’re both gone now, so the mystery endures.  The second story is of Jean Richardson, beloved wife of beloved Dean and later Bishop Milton Richardson, who upon her very first worship service at the Cathedral, walked up the chancel steps toward the altar, glanced at the stained-glass window above the east choir stalls, and gasped, “What kind of church is this?!?”  The window she spied murderously declared—and declares, “Hang all the law and the prophets!”  With images of creepy gallows, Mrs. Richardson must have thought she’d walked into a Halloween horror film.  Luckily, someone quickly pointed out to her the top half of the window, usually obscured in shadow, which provides the first portion of the quoted bible verse: “On these two commandments…hang all the law and the prophets.”

That’s a relief!  Our window quotes Matthew’s version of today’s Gospel passage from Mark, in which a genuinely-searching scribe approaches Jesus and asks which is the most important of all God’s commandments.  Jesus answers, “The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” 

Or, as Matthew says, “On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”  In other words, our Lord is telling us unequivocally that nothing in all the utterances of God takes precedence over these.  They are the key by which everything else is to be interpreted.  All else in scripture hangs on what Jesus says today.  The scribe agrees, and so Jesus says to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.”

That’s a most interesting coda, from the mouth of Jesus.  It is not that following these two commandments is some dogged duty; it isn’t even that fidelity to them earns one’s way into some ethereal heaven.  The kingdom of God in Mark’s Gospel doesn’t refer to heaven; it means living in communion with the divine: connecting to God in the here-and-now in ways that grant vitality and light, and then living our lives in light of that reality.  What Jesus says to the scribe, and what Jesus means for each and every one of us, is that if we desire to be near the kingdom of God—if we want to encounter the grace, power, and presence of the divine—we must love God with our hearts, our souls, our minds, and our strength; and we must love our neighbor not just a little bit, not occasionally, and not with some small part of us, but as we love our very selves.  When we do these things—when we orient our lives in these ways, toward God and neighbor—then we will have entered into the orientation of Godself, like stepping into and floating upon the current of a river.  We will rest our lives upon the kingdom, and that makes all the difference.

I’m glad I didn’t disregard the lectionary today, because this turns out to be one of those weeks when the Gospel and Old Testament texts truly speak to and through one another.  We might ask, “What does it look like to love God and one’s neighbor?”  And Holy Scripture presents us with the story of Naomi and Ruth. 

Naomi travels with her husband and two sons from her home to the country of Moab to escape a famine. There, the men in her family all die.  Shellshocked and presumptively alone, Naomi makes plans to return to her home, and she bids farewell to her widowed daughters-in-law.  The younger women are Moabites.  Despite the deaths of their husbands (Naomi’s sons), they have kith and kin in Moab.  If they will look out for themselves and tend to their lives, they will be o.k.  And yet, as Naomi departs, Ruth takes hold of Naomi and offers words that, through the eons, still rend the heart and buoy the soul.  Ruth says to Naomi:

“Do not press me to leave you or to turn back from following you!  Where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God.  Where you die, I will die.”

Ruth and Naomi: A Story of Redemption - National Shrine of the Immaculate  Conception
Ruth and Naomi relief from the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception

Ruth recognizes that love for God and neighbor is the recognition that the three—God, neighbor, self—are in the end not separate, but the same.  Loving God with heart, soul mind, and strength is loving the neighbor.  If one does not love one’s neighbor, one does not love God.  Loving oneself is loving the neighbor.  If one does not love one’s neighbor, then one fails grant the self the joy of such love.

And loving neighbor is not academic or theoretical.  It is as it is for Ruth.  It is cleaving to the one in need in acknowledgement that we both extend from God and from God’s love.  When the neighbor despairs, we despair.  When the neighbor rejoices, we rejoice. 

There have been times in each of our lives when we desperately needed to hear someone utter Ruth’s words in solidarity with us: “Where you go, I will go.  Where you lodge, I will lodge.  Your God will be my God, and your people will be my people.”  To hear such words means that we are not alone; that we have fellow travelers on this journey with us; who will carry the load alongside us; who will not walk away.  To hear such words means we have neighbors.  To speak them means we are blessedly near to the kingdom of God. 

Ruth is a Moabite.  In the fifth book of the Torah, Deuteronomy, Moabites are not included as neighbors.  The Hebrew scriptures initially ostracize Moabites.  Moabites are banned from the presence of God forever.  They are anathema.[i]  But then the people of God, through iconic Naomi, actually meet a Moabite and discover that Ruth is not only their neighbor, but their salvation.  By the Middle Ages, the rabbis had taken Ruth’s speech and turned it into a catechism explaining what it meant to be a good Jew.  In other words, against all odds the Moabite became the model for what it looks like to be a child of God.  Miracle of miracles.  That kind of transformation in understanding, that kind of recognition of our need for one another across all divides, is only possible when we approach Jesus as the scribe and humbly ask the Lord, “As we walk through this world, what is the most important thing of all?” We must love the lord our God with all our heart, and all our soul, and all our mind, and all our strength.  We must love God with everything, and that means we must love our neighbor as ourselves.  And then, the kingdom of God will be here


[i] Deuteronomy 23:3

Second Trombone

From the sixth through the eighth grade, I was second chair trombone in the Paragould Junior High School band, and I was all-in.  I practiced every night.  At first, I practiced in the dining room.  After the first night, I was asked to move to the study…and close the door.  By the second week, I had been banished to my parents’ bedroom at the very back of the house.  Apparently, not everyone embraces the beauty of second trombone.  More about that to come (I promise).

Did you know that there are three creation stories in the Old Testament?  Many Christians are aware of the first two.  They appear in the first and second chapters of Genesis.  EfM graduates and other Episcopalians who regularly study the bible are aware that these are two separate accounts, from two different and unrelated strands of the Jewish tradition.  The first is a hymn (not a science text, by the way), which tells of God’s wondrous creation in a series of stanzas that chart the creation by days.  At the end of each stanza, as a kind of refrain, the Genesis 1 hymns says, “And God saw that it was good.”  The Genesis 1 creation story is grand, bombastic, and cosmic in scope, like a Wagner opera.

The second creation story, in Genesis 2, is much more localized and down to earth.  It is in this second story that we find the Garden of Eden.  It is in this second story that God appears as an anthropomorphized character, walking in the garden in the cool of the day.

Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden
In Genesis 1 & 2, human beings are the centerpiece of creation.

There is one shared theme for both of these stories: At the culmination of creation, whether grand or intimate, God creates humanity.  Genesis 1 says that, on the final, ultimate day of creation, “God created humankind in God’s image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.”  And God grants humankind dominion over all the rest of creation.  In Genesis 2, God creates Adam and Eve and as the inhabitants of Paradise.  In both accounts, the creation story turns out to be a story about, and for, people.  We are the denouement of God’s creative acts, the center of things, those for whom all the rest is made.  To return to where I began today, in the Genesis creation stories we are first chair violin in the orchestra, or if you prefer, lead guitar in the world’s rock band.

It is rare that even biblically-literate Christians are aware of the Old Testament’s third creation story, but it is there, and it may even be more ancient that the stories in Genesis.  It is found in Job 38-41, and we read its beginning verses today.  To catch us up to speed, Job has been inflicted with every manner of distress and disease.  His life has fallen completely apart; his friends claim that he must be at fault (though he knows differently); and he has demanded that God appear and answer for his malady.  In Job 38, God obliges.

In the ensuing chapters, God combines the cosmic scope of Genesis 1 with the intimacy of Genesis 2, as God recounts the creation for Job via a series of pointed questions.  Today we heard the cosmic part: “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?  Tell me, if you have understanding.  Who determined its measurements—surely you know!  Or who stretched the line upon it?  On what were its bases sunk, or who laid its cornerstone when the morning stars sang together and all the heavenly beings shouted for joy?  Can you lift up your voice to the clouds, so that a flood of waters may cover you?  Can you send forth lightnings, so that they may go and say to you, “Here we are”?

Reformed Commentary on Job: Chapter 38 – Orthodox Christian Theology
William Blake’s depiction of Job 38

A few verses later, God will extol all of God’s beautiful, majestic, tender, and awkward creatures.  God mentions the lion, deer, the hawk, the horse, monsters of the deep, and even the ridiculous-looking and acting ostrich as each invaluable and precious.  As God speaks, Job undoubtedly awaits the culmination of God’s peroration, a mention of humanity—Job himself—as the apex and center of creation.  But the mention never comes.  God finishes speaking with no final, culminating day of creation; no Garden of Eden; no mention of humanity at all.

The implication is clear, and Job gets it.  After God has finished speaking, Job replies, “I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know…I repent in dust and ashes.”[i]  Whether or not we grasp the implication, and whether or not we can accept it, is the question. 

We have each and all spent a lifetime, and before us humanity has spent eons, both consciously and unconsciously embracing the Genesis creation stories.  We believe that we—humanity as a whole and each of us individually—is at the center of things.  We believe that we are the apex of creation, that we are the main characters in the story, that our joys and accomplishments deserve accolades and that our pains and sorrows deserve the sympathy of the world.  Collectively, this self-regard imperils the natural and social nexus of our world.  Individually, it often strains our relationships to the breaking point and leads to very many of our disappointments in life.

This is certainly the understanding of James and John, the “sons of thunder,” in today’s Gospel.  They believe that they are at the center of things and that they deserve to be at the very center of the story Jesus is writing.  Their only dispute is which of the two of them is the greatest, which one will play lead guitar in the “Jesus saves the world” grand tour.  Everyone and everything else is peripheral.

But the creation story in Job tells us that none of this is true.  The creation story in Job tells us that we are not at the center of things.  God loves us, yes.  In God’s eyes we are incredibly precious.  We matter.  But not more than the deer, or the hawk, or the ostrich, or the earth.  We are not first chair violin, virtuosos for whom all else stops when we begin to play.  Perhaps we are, instead, second chair trombone. 

Mahler 2nd symphony brass choral Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, D. Gatti -  YouTube

Second chair trombone matters.  If it were removed from the Arkansas fight song, you’d notice its lack.  It is a complementary component of the whole, part of a symphony of music that lifts and carries God’s song forward.  In a way, second trombone is a much harder part to play.  Rather than setting the pace and driving the melody, the second trombone must recede at times, only to bellow forth at just the right moment in support of the whole song.  Second trombone must be especially attentive to the other instruments, so as not to overpower or underperform.  And, second trombone must reconcile with the fact that, alone, its part makes no sense.  Second trombone is not in the center.  It is not the most valuable, but it is essential.

This recognition is the cup from which Jesus asks James and John to drink today.  It is hard elixir, the toughest medicine to swallow.  But drink it, they ultimately will.  They will give up the presumption of their elevated self-importance and becomes apostles of the Gospel, serving and sacrificing for it, and speaking its Word of Truth rather than getting in its way.

Will we?  Can we?  Can we, with Job, acknowledge that we have always assumed a human-centric and self-centered world, when in fact we are not the be all and end all?  Can we give up the adolescent dream of playing lead guitar and instead play second trombone?  In this stewardship season, as we are each called to support the ministry of this place with our time, our talent, and (now especially) our treasure, can we recast Genesis 1’s badly-translated “human dominion of the earth” as, instead, “human stewardship,” giving up the starring roles for lives of service to God, whose creation is so wonderful as to be beyond our understanding?           God does love us, just as God love all of God’s creation.  If we can embody a little less Genesis and a little more Job, then the dissonance of our lives will become harmony, and we will play our part in the symphony of God’s song.


[i] Job 42:3 & 6

The world is in your hands

I am a lover of myths, both ancient and new.  As anyone who has attended many of my classes knows, and as those about to participate in the Anglican Way series will learn, myths are not false stories, but rather stories that express truths so deep that normal declarative or didactic speech simply cannot convey them.  J.R.R. Tolkien, the brilliant author of The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings wove myths as profound as any ever crafted.  A devout Christian, Tolkien expresses a divinely-permeated world, Middle Earth, that includes various categories of sentient creatures such as elves and human beings.  In some ways, Tolkien’s elves are greater than people.  They are immortal, and they have strength that humans do not share.  But in other ways, the elves are less than women and men.  Their emotional lives are less complex.  They are not as fully-formed.  And most importantly, they are receding.  By the end of Tolkien’s grand tale, the elves will leave Middle Earth, and the stewardship of the world is left to people.  The world is theirs to do with as they will, for good or ill.

10 Best Lord Of The Rings (Middle-earth) Swordsmen (Ranked)
Elves and humans in the film adaptation of LOTR

I’m always reminded of myth generally and Lord of the Rings specifically when I read the beginning of the Letter to the Hebrews.  Like the best myths, there is mystery surrounding the Letter to the Hebrews.  For starters, it’s not a letter at all.  It’s something more like, but not quite like, a sermon.  Second, no one knows who wrote it.  Over the millennia various scholars have claimed authorship for various saints, but all that is pure conjecture.  The letter (or whatever it is) begins like the best myths: “Long ago, God spoke to our ancestors…”  It is as if Hebrews emerged from the mists, full of power and truth.

And, Hebrews talks a lot about angels and humans in a manner that is reminiscent of those elves and people in Tolkien.  As Tolkien clearly loves those elves, Hebrews is preoccupied with angels.  The author is clearly fascinated by them.  Angels are, he says, creatures close to God and of great power.  But angels are also simple creatures.  They having nothing at all to with redemption, either the need for it or the receipt of it.  And so, they are in one way more than human but, in another, less.  Hebrews says, of human beings—of us, “You [God] have made them only a little lower than the angels [and] you have crowned them [human beings] with glory and honor, subjecting all things under their feet.”

Every time I read it, that last line stops me in my tracks.  The mysterious author goes on to add, “In subjecting all things to [human beings], God left nothing [in creation] outside their control.”  That is awesome and profound.  It should make us pause, and shudder at least a little bit.  Not to the angels, those heavenly creatures of power and glory, but to us, with our creativity, beauty, hope, and joy—but also with our brokenness, pettiness, destructiveness, and sometimes myopic vision—God has left the stewardship of God’s world.

Toni Morrison: 9 Essential Books, Works by Nobel Laureate - Rolling Stone
Toni Morrison

This reminds me of the story Toni Morrison shared when she accepted the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1993[i]  It is another profoundly true myth.  Here it is:         

“Once upon a time there was an old woman. Blind. Wise…  [She] lives alone in a small house outside of town. Her reputation for wisdom is without peer and without question. Among her people she is both the law and its transgression. The honor she is paid and the awe in which she is held reach beyond her neighborhood to places far away; to the city where the intelligence of rural prophets is the source of much amusement.

One day the [blind] woman is visited by some young people who seem to be bent on disproving her clairvoyance and showing her up for the fraud they believe she is. Their plan is simple: they enter her house and ask the one question the answer to which rides solely on her difference from them, a difference they regard as a profound disability: her blindness. They stand before her, and one of them says, ‘Old woman, I hold in my hand a bird. Tell me whether it is living or dead.’

She does not answer, and the question is repeated. ‘Is the bird I am holding living or dead?’

Still she doesn’t answer. She is blind and cannot see her visitors, let alone what is in their hands. She does not know their color, gender or homeland. She only knows their motive.  The old woman’s silence is so long, the young people have trouble holding their laughter.

Finally she speaks and her voice is soft but stern. ‘I don’t know,’ she says. ‘I don’t know whether the bird you are holding is dead or alive, but what I do know is that it is in your hands. It is in your hands.’

Her answer can be taken to mean: if it is dead, you have either found it that way or you have killed it. If it is alive, you can still kill it. Whether it is to stay alive, it is your decision. Whatever the case, it is your responsibility.”

Do we understand this myth, this story?  Not to the angels, but to us God has entrusted God’s whole world.  Whether the world lives or dies depends entirely upon how we hold it.  There are those who would encourage us to believe the world is there for our use and amusement, that it is in our right to smother it for a laugh, or a dollar, or in order to fulfill our own ego needs.  Those people are wrong.  It is not in our right, but it is in our power.  It is equally in our power—and it is our responsibility—to help the world and its people flourish, fly, and sing, to release the world from the potentially deadly grip in which we hold it. 

Boy Holding Earth In His Hands by UltraHDenis_new | VideoHive

And so, we ask: What will make the difference?  What will determine whether we smother the world or help it to flourish and fly?  I believe with all my soul, as the author of Hebrews also believes and contends, that the answer is the Church, and increasingly so. 

Daily, the world is more and more atomized.  Daily, the barometer of what is acceptable and true is only what I believe benefits me or my tribe.  Not so, says Hebrews.  You see, the Church exists as a witness to the world of a different vision.  We here, who Hebrews says are only just below the angels, are being redeemed and sanctified through Jesus, who is, as we read today, “the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being.”  In Jesus, God becomes one of us so that, through Jesus, we might understand how to steward God’s world.  In the Church, as nowhere else in the world, we find ourselves empowered to release God’s world to flourish.  Later in Hebrews the author pointedly says that the Church exists to “provoke one another to love and good deeds.”[ii]  Think about that:  Where else in the whole world do we learn that this is the way to live?  How is the world to breathe and fly if we don’t learn it?  That is why the Church matters now more than ever.  The scholar and preacher Fred Craddock calls it “tenacious faithfulness.”[iii]

We have entered into the stewardship season at Christ Church.  We are in the midst of our Every Member Canvass.  2022 promises to be the Cathedral’s most financially challenging year in decades, due to revenue lost to the pandemic.  The world is in our hands, and before that, the Cathedral is in our hands.  In order to be tenaciously faithful in 2022—in order to provoke one another to love and good deeds—we must support the ministry of this place, and that includes financial support, ideally with a pledge.  Your vestry and I have all made our pledges for the coming year.  I hope you will join us.

Not to the angels, but to us God has entrusted the stewardship of God’s world.  We are empowered by the Jesus who is “the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being.”  At this moment, we are blind to what will ultimately be, but we know this with certainty: the future of the world, and of this place, is in our hands.  It is in our hands. 


[i] https://www.nobelprize.org/prizes/literature/1993/morrison/lecture/

[ii] Hebrews 10:24

[iii] “Hebrews.”  The New Interpreter’s Bible.  Vol. XII, pg. 13.

The Ideal Woman

The Wednesday Men’s Bible Study has been reading the book of Proverbs this fall.  It is a fascinating book in numerous ways.  Among them, Proverbs sets up a dichotomy between a “bad woman,” who embodies vice and a “good woman” who is described by a man to his son in the passage we heard read today.  While the lector was reading it, I tried to peek through the latticework of the pulpit to see the reactions on women’s faces.

Chapter 31 is the culmination of Proverbs.  The wife it describes can be read as the anthropomorphized embodiment of wisdom or as the actual, literal spouse a wise man should seek.  There is much in the description of this wife that can alternately affirm or madden, depending upon one’s point of view.

On the one hand, Proverbs’ ideal wife supports her husband.  Proverbs says, “She does [her husband] good, and not harm, all the days of her life.”

This ideal woman is also a consummate homemaker.  Proverbs adds, “She rises while it is still night and provides food for her household…She looks well to the ways of her household…her children rise up and call her happy.”

 On the other hand, Proverbs acknowledges the ideal woman as a person of business and commerce.  The writer says, “She considers a field and buys it…She perceives that her merchandise is profitable…She makes linen garments and sells them; she supplies the merchant with sashes.”

Beyond her vocation, whatever it may be, Proverbs says that, for the ideal woman, “Strength and dignity are her clothing…She opens her mouth with wisdom and the teaching of kindness is on her tongue.”

In all, Proverbs offers a comprehensive depiction of a womanly ideal.  It praises women highly and in many varied ways.  And yet, there’s something about this last chapter of Proverbs that irritates.  Similarly, I daresay that, for some, hearing me talk about it has been irritating.  The source of that dual irritation is this: Whether or not Proverbs’ description of the ideal woman is well-rounded; whether or not it’s true; it is a description written from a man’s perspective.  Remember, both the speaker and the hearer in Proverbs are men.  It is irritating, because a man has dictated the ideal of, and for, a woman.  A man has defined what a woman should be.

Afghan women largely lack healthcare, education | The World from PRX

Women in Afghanistan

Afghanistan is in the news.  I will leave any comment on U.S. involvement in Afghanistan to those far more knowledgeable than me.  That is for the policymakers and politicians, not the preacher.  But I daresay we all agree that the reversion of Afghanistan to Taliban rule and the resulting plight of Afghan women is a horrifying tragedy.  Life for women under the Taliban is the radical extent of men defining what women can and cannot be, of circumscribing women’s existence by a man’s imagined ideal. 

The extreme example can illuminate, but it can also obscure all the more subtle ways that men continue to define women, that men create boxes of all kinds into which they attempt to neatly categorize and control women.  One need not look halfway across the world to see such attempts. 

It is a hallmark of postmodernity that we each create our own story, that rather than a metanarrative into which we are trapped, we can write our own script.  This realization is, with fits and starts, liberating people of all categories, in part, by blowing up the categories.  Women, perhaps most of all, are discarding the ideals men have for eons set for them and instead determining their own.  Despite vestigial attempts by men to define women, women are writing their own stories.  This is a good and Gospel thing.

My daughter dancing

Of course, for Christians of any kind, the writing of the story never merely asks and answers, “Who do I want to be?” but rather “Who does the God of grace and love want me to be?”  Blessedly for that, the very book of Proverbs with which we began offers a different, and contrasting, image of womanhood.  It is so radically different that some scholars over the centuries have mused whether it might have been written by a woman.  It is found way back in chapter eight, where wisdom is once again personified as a woman, but here, unbound by men’s preconceptions, she is free.  Halfway through that chapter, Lady Wisdom begins to speak in the first person, owning her own ideal.  Lady Wisdom says:

The Lord created me at the beginning of his work,
   the first of his acts of long ago.
Ages ago I was set up,
   at the first, before the beginning of the earth.
When there were no depths I was brought forth,
   when there were no springs abounding with water.
Before the mountains had been shaped,
   before the hills, I was brought forth—
when God had not yet made earth and fields,
   or the world’s first bits of soil.
When God established the heavens, I was there,
   when God drew a circle on the face of the deep,
when God made firm the skies above,
   when God established the fountains of the deep,
when God assigned to the sea its limit,
   so that the waters might not transgress his command,
when God marked out the foundations of the earth,
   then I was beside him, like a master worker;
and I was daily God’s delight,
   rejoicing before God always,
rejoicing in God’s inhabited world
   and delighting in the human race.

Lady Wisdom here is so exalted that some theologians even equate her with the Holy Spirt, broadening our previously-limited conception of God to include the feminine.  Lady Wisdom is sheer freedom.  She is power.  She is co-creator.  She is, in God’s eyes and in her own, sheer delight.  And she is woman. 

This is an expansive ideal, an unlimited ideal, an ideal that finds it source not in man’s opinion but in God’s enlivening and overflowing love.  When I read it, as a man, it startles me; it admittedly discomfits me; it amazes me what God has in store for women.  And it also strikes me as just right.  I happen to be married to a woman smarter and better than I am, and I am blessed with a daughter who is brilliant, good, and fierce.  My daughter is also a dancer, and when she dances, it is like seeing wisdom in motion.  I am reminded daily (and sometimes pointedly by them!) that no one—and especially no man—is to tell them who they are, what they can do, or who they will be. 

She Was Equal To The Apostles — St. Basil the Great Greek Orthodox Church
Mary Magdalene proclaiming the Resurrection

Of course, elsewhere Holy Scripture puts actual human form on Lady Wisdom, when Eve discerns knowledge of good and evil while Adam dithers, when Esther saves her people from blindly bloodthirsty men, when Mary Magdalene proclaims the Resurrection to those eleven cowering male disciples.

So it is today.  So long as there are men and a broken world, I suppose men will seek to define and control women.  But just as there is no controlling God’s Holy Spirit, there is no controlling those who stand beside God as God’s master workers, who are daily God’s delight.  I, for one, would not begin to try.

The Lines We Draw

I love satellite photos of the earth.  I love to see them in daylight and dark, and to attempt to identify points on the earth that I recognize and have visited.  It’s not easy, because from orbit the land masses flow together.  Mountains and river are discernible, but what is not present in satellite photos—unlike on the maps we draw—are lines

Amazing Earth: Satellite Images from 2019 | NASA

The world map is covered and crisscrossed with lines, arbitrarily dividing that which, from a bird’s-eye point of view, is one whole. Sometimes the line-drawing on the map is the result of conquest, of one people encroaching upon and overwhelming the living space of another.  Other times, as in the Treaty of Versailles after World War I, line-drawing is the result of a few men behind closed doors creating new nation states and making often arbitrary but always seismically life-altering decisions for millions of people.  The blithe arrogance of those decisions made in 1919 at Versailles is mind-blowing, and the world is still reeling with the consequences today, both in the Middle East and in Eastern Europe.

The map is not the only place in which we draw lines.  We also draw lines in the proverbial sand, akin to the legendary line William Travis drew at the Alamo.  Lines in the sand are artificial, fabricated “Rubicons,” that declare “No retreat, no surrender.” Perhaps there are rare, actual battles in which such lines are unavoidable, but most often in life such lines create unnecessary division that is sometimes impossible to repair.

Hanukkah: Our Line in the Sand | Andres Spokoiny | The Blogs

Irish author Kerri ní Dochartaigh writes, “We are a race that has long sought to break things up, to divide, to separate, to draw lines between things that otherwise have remained as one.”  Dochartaigh was born in Derry, Northern Ireland, and she knows of what she speaks.  Dochartaigh was raised in the midst of “the Troubles,” with one Catholic parent and one Protestant parent, and her formative years were marked by national, religious, ideological, and family division.  She carries in her body and in her psyche the wounds and scars of all those lines. 

Kerri ní Dochartaigh’s writing is a cautionary tale for our own lives, in our own day.  In our society, the lines that divide are drawn in increasingly bold strokes.  Our tone is increasingly unnuanced, binary, strident, and mutually incriminating.  Our tribal identifiers are wielded as barriers to distinguish “us” from “them.”  In her Celtic way, Dochartaigh muses an antidote: “I think so much in these troubled days, about what it might mean to live as the birds do, as the moths and butterflies, as we once did ourselves maybe: free from border and barrier—in a place where the veil is so thin that we are reminded what it means to really be here—in this glorious world.”

Canongate signs Kerri Ní Dochartaigh debut after six-way auction
Kerri ní Dochartaigh

Dochartaigh’s words read almost like a Gospel saying of Jesus, and Jesus would surely agree with her sentiment.  Living in God’s “glorious world” is a gift, and we are called to be stewards of the earth and our relationships with one another.  From God’s vantage point, there are no lines.  The human impulse immediately to circumscribe what is ours and of us—drawing all those lines—may be the sin from which we need the most redemption. 

As witnesses to the world, what might it look like for us to “live as the birds do,” to cross over the lines of suspicion and resentment that seem so indelible in our world but that are, in fact, illusions?  What would it mean for us to step through—boldly and in faith—the thresholds that claim to separate us, and through our movement declare God’s truth that we are one people, one world, that flows forth from the One God who creates in love?  If we have the courage to do so, then, with God’s help, the lines will begin to blur, and we will begin to see the world as God does: as one blessed creation.

An X-Rated sermon…almost

It’s Rally Day, and whether you are here in person or joining worship on livestream nearby or from afar, this is the day we hope you will, well, rally and renew your engagement with the life and ministry of the Cathedral.  There is a particular kind of pressure on the preacher for Rally Day.  The preacher wants to wake up the congregation from its drowsy summer slumber.  The preacher wants to provide a spiritual jolt.  So here goes…

Last week the Family Thompson finally watched every single movie or television show offered on Netflix, HBOMax, and Amazon Prime.  (That’s only a slight exaggeration.)  So, we did the only thing a family can do in this lingering pandemic: We subscribed to Hulu.  Suddenly, a whole new list of cinematic offerings is before us.  And one of the first things to pop up on the Hulu feed was a new documentary on the history of nudity in film, entitled “Skin.”  (Ah! Suddenly the summer somnolence is fading.  Did Dean Thompson just mention nudity from the pulpit?!?  Yes, I think he did.)

To be clear (and for the recording), I have not watched the documentary “Skin.” But I did read the description, and it mentions Midnight Cowboy, the first X-rated feature film to win an Oscar for Best Picture.  Then I looked at the readings for today and realized that the Old Testament reading is from the Song of Songs, the Bible’s very own erotic love poem.  So, maybe an X-rated sermon is just the right thing to jolt us on Rally Day. 

But then it occurred to me that I hope to remain dean of the Cathedral for quite some time yet.  Plus, the Bishop is on sabbatical, and I’d hate for him to be disturbed with all those calls he’d suddenly receive from Cathedral parishioners.  I’ll aim for a PG-13 rating.

Which 2019 Streaming Service Is Right for You? | GQ

Song of Songs really is, on a primary level, a sensuous love poem.  It is a about a young man and a young woman brimming with passion for one another.  Its language is, in places, ridiculously overblown.  Today, for instance, the young woman says this: “Look, my beloved comes, leaping upon the mountains, bounding over the hills.  My beloved is like a gazelle or a young stag.”  If my college-age son wrote like that in a creative writing class, the professor would roll her eyes. 

Even so, there is something authentic and deeply earnest about the language in Song of Songs, and part of that is its terrible turns of phrase.  These young lovers really do yearn for each other.  Their love is really real, and, for all that, it captivates us today as it has captivated people for eons.          

But Song of Songs also turns dark.  In chapter five, beyond today’s reading, the young woman goes out into the city at night to find her lover.  And the city turns out to be dangerous place.  She gets lost.  Plaintively, she says, “I sought him, but did not find him; I called him, but he gave no answer.  Making their rounds in the city, the sentinels found me; they beat me, they wounded me, they took away my mantle, those sentinels of the wall.”

What’s happening here needs no translation.  The young woman is abused in every way by those who are supposed to be her protectors.  She is left wounded and naked.

This all happens in the middle of the book, which makes curious a line from the first chapter, which we read today.  In chapter 1, one lover says to the other (in words we recall having heard read at weddings), “Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away; for now the winter is past, the rain is over and gone.  The flowers appear on the earth; the time of singing has come, and the voice of the turtledove is heard in our land.  The fig tree puts forth its figs, and the vines are in blossom…Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away.”

Do you see what happens here?  Do you see why it is curious?  At the very outset of the love poem, the lovers declare that all storm clouds have parted, that they have emerged from all trial, and that their world and lives together are now joyous and free.  But we know, as the reader, that this is not actually the case.  The world continues to be dark, dangerous, and injurious.  Either the lovers are completely naïve, or something else is going on here.

Stable Days: Leaping Beauties --- Gazelles

There are hints throughout the poem, and especially at its end, that the couple aren’t naïve and never were.  But if they aren’t naïve, how can they speak of light and joy at the outset of the poem, when the world around them is actually so ominous and dark?

It’s time for me to share with you a theological term.  (This is why I jolted you awake a few minutes ago, so you’d be alert for this part!)  The word is prolepsis.  Prolepsis means to live now as if some future event has already occurred.  To live now as if living in the future.

At first blush, prolepsis can seem like escapism, but it is actually a seminal concept in the biblical witness.  Prolepsis seasons Genesis all the way to Revelation.  The Gospels are proleptic.  So is Paul. 

Throughout scripture, those who are burdened, those who face trial, those lost in darkness are called to live as though they are, right now, bathed in light.  Part of this expresses a holy defiance, a declaration that darkness cannot win, or, as John puts it, there is a light that darkness cannot overcome.  But there is more to it than that.  It also turns out, again and again, that something about living proleptically—something about living as if the winter is already gone even when it is still snowing—births the reality we are waiting for.   

Prolepsis is, in other words, how we conceive, and gestate, and birth hope.  And hope empowers us to act.  And our actions light candles in the darkness, until, eventually, the shadows flee before the light.  In other words, we are called to live proleptically because doing so births into being the future we so desire.

Living proleptically gives the young couple in the Song of Songs fortitude to endure and courage to act.  It saves them.  It can save us, too.  Despite the one-hundred-degree heat outside, the winter of our world is not over.  Pandemic, global upheaval, and civil strife all cast a dark shadow on these days.  But we are children of the living God, and our God calls us to live today in light of God’s promised tomorrow

Houston Skyline At Sunrise | Stockyard Photos

How do we do that?  Well, maybe it’s time to speak and write in the gushing ebullience of young lovers.  It’s definitely time to get vaccinated and encourage everyone we love to do so as well.  It’s time to recognize that we care for one another; and we care for justice; and we care for our sisters and brothers we find strange and with whom we may vehemently disagree.  

We are called to live as though we will be fully reconciled in every way we are estranged, and to act in this world in favor of those reconciliations even when—or especially when—the world shakes its head at what looks like our naivete. 

Because when we do this, we will first notice that in our own lives the light begins to peek through the darkness.  We’ll then notice that, beyond our own experience, the world around us begins to brighten.  Until finally, the future we have chosen to live becomes the real and actual present.  Our hopes are realized!  And God says to us, “Arise, my loves, my fair ones, for the winter is past.  The flowers appear on the earth, and the time of singing has come.” Now there’s something for which we can rally.