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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Today we read the inauguration of David’s young son Solomon as King of Israel, and we read of Solomon’s incredible request of God: not for riches, or revenge against his enemies, or for expanded power, but for “an understanding mind to govern [the] people, able to discern between good and evil.” Solomon’s request pleases God, and God responds, “Indeed, I give you a wise and discerning mind; no one like you has been before you and no one like you shall arise after you.”
And thus begins the illustrious career of wise King Solomon, known the world over. Immediately after today’s reading, 1 Kings shares the famous story of two women who come to the king, both claiming to be the mother the same child. In his sagacity, King Solomon commands that the child be cut in two, granting each mother one half a baby. Of course, the real mother recoils at this notion and relinquishes her rights to save the baby’s life, and thus wise Solomon discovers the true maternal identity and returns the baby to its home.[i]
Solomon’s discerning wisdom was so great that tradition ascribed to him authorship of the biblical books of the Proverbs, Song of Songs, and Ecclesiastes. Never mind that Solomon almost certainly didn’t write any of those books. It is a testament to his legendary wisdom that, when an author is needed for the Wisdom corpus in our canon of scripture, Solomon gets the nod.
There’s only one problem with all of this: the real Solomon was not wise. He was a terrible, promiscuous, vain, and tyrannical ruler. Solomon was so self-absorbed and self-indulgent that after building the great Temple to God in Jerusalem—and committing himself to follow God in the mold of his father David—Solomon immediately abandoned the God of Israel and veered toward both abject hedonism and rank idolatry. He mocked the God with whom he’d made covenant and worshiped false gods.
Solomon also conscripted his own citizenry into forced labor for his many building projects, creating a virtually enslaved populace. In a sparsely-populated country, 1 Kings tells us that “King Solomon conscripted forced labor out of all Israel; the levy numbered thirty thousand men. He sent them to Lebanon, ten thousand a month in shifts; they would be a month in Lebanon and two months at home.”[ii]
And, Solomon denuded the populace with crushing taxes they could not pay.
In the end, Scripture condemns Solomon with the words it reserves for the worst of rulers. 1 Kings eventually says that “Solomon did what was evil in the sight of the Lord.”[iii]
Once we know all of this about Solomon, then even that legendary story of his wisdom—the one about the two mothers claiming the same child—reads differently. Rather than addressing them as a sage, we can see Solomon as a capricious tyrant toying with the distraught emotions of a mother, desperate to get her baby back. There is horror in that story, when Solomon blithely commands that the little child be cut in two.
Though 1 Kings tries mightily to maintain the notion of Solomon’s wisdom alongside his foolishness, the proof is in what happened immediately after Solomon died. Without his domineering personality to maintain fear and order, ten of the twelve tribes of Israel immediately revolted against Solomon’s son, and the nation of Israel was split forever.[iv] With that knowledge, we go back and re-read with irony God’s promise to the young Solomon. God had told Solomon, “No one like you has been before you and no one like you shall arise after you.” No kidding. Solomon was truly one-of-a-kind. The kingdom that David had labored so long to create was ripped asunder by the folly of the king legend credits with wisdom.
For anyone interested in either scripture or history, the story of Solomon is endlessly fascinating, but, as this is a sermon rather than a lecture, the question remains, is it also more than that? Beyond what it tells us about the distant past, does it mean anything for our own present and future?
I am a fan of the historian Barbara Tuchman, and her best book is The March of Folly. The book charts several historical events that move from promise to folly: the Protestant Reformation, the British loss in the American Revolutionary War, and the American morass in Vietnam. Tuchman shows in clear relief the markers along the way of each, where the actors could have and should have seen the looming disaster ahead. But those actors had such myopic vision, were so self-indulgent, and were so obsessed with the immediate that they failed to note the bigger picture and marched tragically into doom.
I have often thought that Barbara Tuchman could have added a chapter about King Solomon to her celebrated book. Solomon started with a kingdom that had, under David’s canny leadership, positioned itself as mighty in its own right and as a power broker between larger kingdoms. Solomon must have shown enormous early promise, or else the chronicle of his God-given wisdom never would have emerged. And yet, little by little, decision by decision, he strayed from discerning wisdom. He squandered God’s gift. He listened to untrustworthy voices that whispered not the truth or the good for the kingdom, but selfish motive and what Solomon wanted to hear. And in his comfort, his harem, his indulgences, his brutal exercise of power, Solomon paid attention only to what was immediately in front of him and ignored the long-term consequences of his actions. The result was folly, the destruction of all that had been entrusted to Solomon and all that he held dear.
Beyond a doubt, Solomon’s story, like Tuchman’s book, has much to say to our age and our society beyond historical note. There was a time, I believe, when we were wise, wisdom being defined, at least in large part, as the willingness to compromise for the common good, to seek truth and knowledge without subterfuge, and to embody the humility to acknowledge what we don’t know, all to make the world in which we live —and which we all share—a marginally better place. Our wisdom was surely flawed, but it was something.
Today, too often, we fail in all these measures of wisdom. Compromise for the common good has been replaced by a self-righteous, rigid stridency on all sides, masquerading as virtue. Humility in the face of our ignorance has been replaced by the folly that we are all experts because we have read a few unsourced lines of text on the internet. Worst of all, the pursuit and dissemination of knowledge has been replaced by some with propaganda disguised as fact that seeks to obfuscate and confuse vulnerable people.
In all of this, we think we are wise, but we are too clever by half, and the results are tearing apart our societal bonds. I’m talking about all of us. I’m talking about me.
Collectively, our society is squandering God’s gift and shedding wisdom for folly. And now, finally, the result is death. Every day, because of willful folly in the form of the politicization of the coronavirus and misinformation willfully disseminated about COVID vaccines, people are dying. A pandemic that could have been in its last days is instead, due to overwhelmed hospitals, imperiling even people who need medical care unrelated to COVID, all because we have lacked wisdom.
The question before us is, then, how do we reclaim wisdom? Of us, what does wisdom require? The key is found (as it is always found) in the Gospel. Today, Jesus speaks to a confused crowd who misunderstand, and yet Jesus persists in proclaiming that which gives light and life. In John’s Gospel, Jesus does not, in his frustration, castigate or denigrate the crowd. He won’t play that game and devolve into folly. He simply speaks, again and again and again, the truth in love. Always the truth. Always in love. He moves people from where they are to a new place. His message is the bread of life.
No matter what the state of affairs today, I believe in the persuasive, transformative, redemptive, wisdom of love. Presiding Bishop Michael Curry wisely reminds us that “Love is not a sentiment. Love is a commitment to the common good.”[v] I believe when the disciples of love—that’s us—act and speak in ways that uplift our neighbors and our community rather than indulge the self, then wisdom will be reclaimed. If ever there were such a moment for such a Gospel it is right now. The biblical work “repentance” means “to follow another path.” It also means “to rise above our own minds,” which includes the mutually-destructive thought processes to which we are prone.[vi] In our relationships, in our politics, in our public health, we can arrest the march of folly and walk instead in the way of God’s wisdom. We—us, here—can become the very bread of life to a starving, ailing world. To be that food, to offer light and life, is our sacred calling in these days. When we hear misinformation touted as fact; when we hear apprehension or fear of vaccines; when we encounter those, from any quarter, who seek to tear down and divide, let us be wise, and speak the truth in love. We are the Body of Christ. We are the bread of life.
One day a man was hiking in the mountains when he came upon an exceedingly hungry grizzly bear. The bear raised up on its hind legs, let out a roar, and prepared to charge. Panicked, the hiker started to run, but he soon realized he’d never outrun the bear. Now, the hiker was, at best, a Christmas and Easter Episcopalian, so he didn’t rightly recall all those good, rich prayers from the Prayer Book, but he did drop to his knees and in his desperation pray, “Dear God, please make this bear a good Christian bear!” To the hiker’s surprise, in an instant the bear stopped charging, dropped to its own knees, reverently folded its paws, and began to pray. Just as the hiker was about to walk on in relief, however, he heard the bear say, “Thank you, Lord, for this meal I’m about to receive…”
It is safe to say that we live in a hunger-obsessed world, and the Gospel lessons last week, this week, and for the next several weeks are all about hunger. Last week, we read the only miracle story (other than the Resurrection itself) that appears in all four Gospels: the Feeding of the Five Thousand. Each Gospel tells the story differently, but they all agree on one thing: A huge crowd has followed Jesus and is hungry, and the disciples are a bit freaked out at the prospect of having to feed them all. What follows may be an example of Harry Potter-like wizardry on Jesus’ part, or it may be an example of miraculous generosity and change of heart on the part of people in the crowd who are hoarding their picnics. But either way, the Feeding of the Five Thousand in John’s Gospel and the extended speech Jesus gives following it—and which begins today—are a theological treatise on hunger.
The University of Michigan Health Science Center describes three aspects of hunger.[i] See if these resonate with you. The first aspect, hunger itself, is described as the “normal sensation that makes you want to eat. Your body tells your brain that your stomach is empty. This makes your stomach growl and gives you hunger pangs.” Makes sense. The second aspect is “fullness,” which is the “feeling of being satisfied. Your stomach tells your brain that it is full. Normally, this feeling causes you to stop eating and not think about food again for several hours.” That also makes sense. Would that these two descriptors told the whole story! But third, there is “appetite,” which is “a desire for food, usually after seeing, smelling, or thinking about food.” And here’s the coda, say the Michigan experts: “Even after you feel full, your appetite can make you keep eating.”
That’s revealing. At its root, hunger is not only about the need for sustenance. Hunger is about desire, and desire can be an insidious thing. Long after one feels full, desire can nevertheless create an insatiable appetite.
This can be physiological, of course, but it can also be existential. We all know that our hungers, our appetites, our cravings, our desires are about a whole lot more than chicken and dumplings. Our hunger can be for things rational and irrational, healthy and perverse. So, for what, besides food, are we hungry? Success, lust, wealth, esteem in the eyes of our fellows, material possessions, a yearning to be loved, vicarious living through our children, or some obsessive pursuit inexplicable to anyone else: Any of these and innumerable others can be the objects of our hunger, of the gnawing appetite that pangs within even after we know we should feel full.
No one in the past hundred years has understood and articulated this as brilliantly as C.S. Lewis in The Screwtape Letters. The Screwtape Letters consists, as many will know, of the correspondence between the demon Screwtape and his apprentice Wormwood. The demons’ project is to encourage, to urge, the voracious appetites that drive us. The demons cultivate our desire to consume, and subsume, and absorb all that is around us so that the world becomes merely food for us, the object of our desire.
Throughout the book, the apprentice demon Wormwood attempts to corrupt his “patient,” a human who, like all of us, struggles with our appetites and desires. There are twists and turns, moments of hope and near-despair, but in the end Wormwood ultimately fails in his task. And as a failed demon, Wormwood then becomes food for his mentor demon Screwtape. In the end, the master says to the apprentice, “My dear, my very dear Wormwood, my poppet, my pigsnie…Rest assured that…I have always desired you…I think I they will give you to me now…Love you? Why, yes. As dainty a morsel as ever I grew fat on.”[ii]
The demons in Lewis’ book are characterized by their fantastical, voracious, insatiable hunger. In other words, they are us taken to an absurd extreme. The demons want to consume anything and everyone—including each other—into themselves. And as always, C.S. Lewis is both entrancing and discomfiting because his fable reads so true. Our own hungers sometimes border on the insatiable, to the point that we, too, may skirt the demonic.
The story of David and Bathsheba, which also began last week and continues today, is the quintessential biblical example of such hunger. Down through Christian history, Bathsheba has gotten a grossly unfair and unjustified bad rap, but make no mistake: David is the demon of this story. His hunger for another man’s wife—that of his friend and companion—is insatiable, and he uses irresistible kingly power to consume his heart’s desire. And the dessert of this unholy meal is Uriah’s murder at David’s behest.
King David, Screwtape, the innumerable, everyday, mundane examples of our own insatiable and destructive hunger…What is the remedy? The world has provided all sorts of band-aids, distractions, temporary existential diet pills that suppress our pangs and cravings. But our faith tells us that there is but one cure. Beginning with the Feeding of the Five Thousand and continuing through Jesus’ long discourse which begins today, Jesus reveals that he—who is the icon and embodiment of the presence of God among us and provided to us—is the bread of life. Reliance upon that bread and nothing else to fill our insatiable hunger, is the only relief from our craving for all those things that can never satisfy.
In our own day, just as when we combat our physical hunger with whatever gimmick or diet fad is in season, we can seek to satisfy our existential hungers with Oprah’s newest secular self-help program, or with new age spiritualities, or with a shallow, smorgasbord dabbling in different religious traditions that doesn’t respect the integrity of any of them. But just as with our physical hunger, when we do so we will repeatedly find ourselves frustrated, disappointed, and binging all over again. “I am the bread of life,” the Incarnate God says today. “Whoever comes to me will never go hungry.”
We know this. Our tradition has always known it. Whether we turn to St. Augustine, who famously said, “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until we find our rest in you”; or to the great mystics of the Church whose desire, greater than any demon’s, found its satiation in God; or to our modern, deeply spiritual twelve-step movement in which recovering addicts acknowledge the necessity of relying completely on a higher power in place of their substance or behavioral cravings; or to my own recent study and teaching about the cessation of clinging and living and loving both fully and non-attached, all speak to a redirection of the heart, the mind, the will, the appetite,to satisfy our hunger only and entirely in God. This is what the feeding of the famished crowd is all about. This is what Jesus means when he says he is the bread of life. This is not about believing the right things, and it is certainly not about moral rectitude and holier-than-thou living. It is about directing our hungers to the source of all and receiving back true sustenance. The only and true satiation is in God, in whom we are filled.
Each year on the Sunday after Trinity Sunday, I open my vesting closet with a smile and comb through all of my vestments until I reach a small hanger that holds a single and specific stole. The stole is green and embroidered on each end with a Celtic knot. It was a gift from St. John’s, Roanoke parishioners Walter and Sara Miller after we’d traveled with a parish group on pilgrimage to Ireland in 2011. It is my favorite stole, due to the givers, the gift, and the embroidery, which symbolizes—like Jesus’ metaphor of the vine in John 15—our interconnectedness with God and one another. I also like the stole because its annual reintroduction into my worship wardrobe marks the beginning of “ordinary time.”
The church year is divided into liturgical seasons, and each season has an important and particular theological and spiritual emphasis. The season of Advent is anticipatory. It readies us for the coming of Christ, both in remembrance of the Nativity and in preparation for Jesus’ return at the consummation of all things. The Christmas season is a twelve-day celebration of the Incarnation. The Epiphany season encourages us to walk through the world with eyes open to both the mundane and miraculous presence of God. Lent is the season of penitence, as we vulnerably and honestly examine our lives, expressing contrition for our errors and laboring to repair things we have damaged or neglected. The season of Easter is the fifty-day joyous exaltation of the Resurrection of Jesus, with its ultimate defeat of death and promise of eternal life for us all. The Easter season ends with the arrival of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost, immediately after which we observe Trinity Sunday, the one day of the year in which we wrestle mightily with the doctrine of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
If you read the preceding paragraph with calendar in hand, you recognize that there is a long stretch of days, weeks, and months between Trinity Sunday and the First Sunday of Advent. This season has no name. Commonly, we refer to it as simply the “season after Pentecost.” In earlier eras of the church, it was also called “ordinary time.”
Ordinary time gained its name because its many weeks are merely marked with ordinal numbers (week 1, week 2, week 3, etc.). But as so often in ecclesiastical life, this season’s name took on an additional layer of meaning. With all the other seasons of the church year so pregnant with emphatic purpose, the long season of ordinary time grants us permission to be, well, ordinary. It is a blessed coincidence that ordinary time encompasses the summer months. Now, we can exhale, relax a bit, slow down, and simply be. In a sense, ordinary time is the sabbath time of the church year. It grants us the opportunity to enjoy one another with no motive other than that enjoyment. It allows us to pray to God as primarily a means to get to know God, rather than undertaking the more pointed prayer of the other seasons.
It would be a mistake to imagine ordinary time as a time to neglect our spiritual lives. It’s certainly not a time to check out of attending church! Rather, ordinary time is the season in which we can tend to these things for their own sake, without the sometimes-heavy weight that the other seasons carry. Ordinary time is a “light” season, we might say. For me, it provides time to focus on the meaning of that Celtic knot embroidered on my green stole: That we are one with Christ and one another, just as Jesus and the Father are one. Such reflection is especially important as we continue to emerge from the pandemic and reestablish our connections with one another. Ordinary time grants me the space to savor that reality and recharge my spiritual batteries. In that way, it is a gift…and it is anything but ordinary!
As a seminarian in Austin from 2000-2003, my friends and I would sometimes walk two blocks from the seminary for a cheap lunch at Red River Café. Another frequent diner during those days was UT quarterback Chris Simms. Simms would walk in and immediately command the place. He was tall and broad and had the look of someone carved into marble by the ancient Romans. Before college, Simms had been USA Today’s national high school offensive player of the year and heralded as the future of the Texas football program. More than anyone I’ve ever seen, he looked like a quarterback.
Of course, Chris Simms wasn’t the only quarterback at Texas in those days. For three years, Simms was locked in a battle with another Longhorn for Texas’ starting position. During Simms’ sophomore year, he and Major Applewhite, who was a year older, shared the QB position. As a junior, Simms won the starting QB spot from Applewhite outright. Applewhite spent the 2001 season as a backup.
While Applewhite kept the bench warm, Chris Simms catapulted the Longhorns to a #3 national ranking and the Big 12 championship game against Colorado. It appeared that all the prognostications about Simms, and the look he conveyed at Red River Café, were about to reach their denouement. But then everything fell apart. The Longhorns fell behind 29-10 before Simms left the game with a finger injury. It was then that the much smaller, ruddy, and supremely confident Applewhite came off the bench and led the Longhorns roaring back to within two points of victory. Texas lost that game, but Applewhite won the starting spot in Texas’s bowl game against Washington, and the 2001 Holiday Bowl turned out to be one of the most exciting football games I’ve ever seen. Both teams were bloodied and bruised, and the lead changed hands repeatedly. The Longhorns were losing with two minutes left in the game, but Major Applewhite was indomitable. In the end, he orchestrated a come-from-behind victory with only seconds remaining. It’s one of the greatest comebacks in Longhorn history.
Do I tell this story to pander to a room full of UT fans? Heavens, no. I know full well when I broach the Chris Simms-Major Applewhite debate that I am as likely to anger half the room as placate the other half. I tell the story because, just as Chris Simms looked every bit the part of the ideal quarterback—big, athletic, attractive, commanding—Major Applewhite did not. Former Longhorn teammate Rod Babers describes Applewhite by saying, “He just wasn’t an athlete. Have you seen Major Applewhite? Have you seen his body?…The pudgy…dude who was wide-waisted with the freckles and the helmet too big.”[i] And yet, Applewhite repeatedly won the big games in the face of any odds. Babers goes on to say, “This is the guy going out there [week after week] and carving people up with a spoon.”[ii]
I don’t know if it’s because Chris Simms looked like Adonis and towered three inches over Major Applewhite, or if it’s because Major Applewhite was himself of ruddy complexion and outsized confidence like the biblical David, but something about their story has always reminded me a bit of King Saul and David, as they’re about to face Goliath.
That’s the story we read today from 1 Samuel. And like the 2001 Holiday Bowl, what a story! Where we pick up the reading, the Philistines have gathered before King Saul’s army, and they have presented their champion, Goliath, for battle. Goliath, the bible tells us is “six cubits and a span,” more than nine feet tall. Whether we take that literally or not, the point is that Goliath terrified and awed the Israelites.
King Saul himself was a Chris Simms-like character. Scripture describes Saul by saying, “There was not a man among the people of Israel more handsome than he; he stood head and shoulders above everyone else.”[iii] Even so, Saul quakes at the sight of Goliath. Rod Babers’ comments about Chris Simms in big games are apt for King Saul. Babers says “He added…pressure onto himself in terms of how he had to perform, and he [often] imploded and collapsed.”
And that’s when ruddy, undersized, underestimated David takes the field, so to speak. With a confidence born of faith in God and himself, David says to Saul, “Let no one’s heart fail because of Goliath; I’ll go and fight with this Philistine.”
In our Sunday school, storybook memories, David marches out, spins his sling, and fells Goliath with a stone. But something else happens first, something crucial and often overlooked. Before David leaves Saul’s tent, but after Saul and the gathered champions have agreed to let David fight, Saul hoists upon David the collective, conventional wisdom about how to win, how to succeed, how to persevere in the face of this challenge. Concretely, Saul clothes David in Saul’s armor.
It presents a comical image, David weighed down in armor that swallows him and a sword he cannot lift. All those around him insist that these are things he needs to protect him and prevail. But David responds, “I can’t walk in this stuff. Take it off!” And he’s right. In this passing verse, David reveals the basis of his wisdom, his confidence, his wily assurance of his own success. David knows what Saul does not, what the so-called champions do not, what even Goliath does not: David knows that—no matter how strong, protective, and impressive it may appear—it is foolish to go to battle in someone else’s armor. And so, David strips down to the clothing he knows and the tools he trusts, and only then steps out and conquers Goliath.
What a lesson for us. Whether one is eight, eighteen, or eighty, we all live in a world that is constantly telling us, in innumerable ways, what figurative armor we must wear to prevail in life. Culturally, emotionally, familially, politically, and, yes, sartorially, we are told what we must do in order to be beautiful in our bodies, successful in our work, fulfilled in our relationships, happy in our world. And we know, deep down, that often the armor we’re told to wear does not fit us. We put on the armor others commend to us, and we cannot move. Rather than protect us or facilitate our flourishing, it weighs us down stifles us, and obscures who we truly are. It is inauthentic. It is not ours, and donning armor that doesn’t fit is not never the recipe for flourishing.[iv]
Of course, today in our culture, the most common knee-jerk antidote for shedding the armor imposed upon us is to claim that we should wear whatever we choose, that we be entirely self-authenticating. But that is detrimental in the opposite way: Rather of denying who we are in favor of others’ images of who we should be, we instead indulge the self in ways that forget that we bear responsibility for one another, that we, like the Israelites in the tent, are all in this together.
So, how can we know, as David did, what armor to wear? How can we put on what fits usq before facing the great challenge of life? David won’t wear Saul’s armor, but neither does David build his own on a whim. David is a shepherd. He has spent his life in the wilderness, communing with God. He has fought lions and bears, protecting the weak committed to his care. And thus, when the time comes to face his great challenge, David adorns himself with the clothing and tools that have served him faithfully as he has lived faithfully in service. It is that tunic and that sling that naturally fit and allow him to move with strength and grace, that turn the small ruddy boy into the confident champion.
That’s key for us as well. We live in communion with God. We have been taught to love fiercely, and protectively of those who are weak. We have been clothed in grace. When the giants parade before us, taunting and threatening, this is our armor, not hoisted upon us by others and not the product of our own self-desire, but given by God. When we wear this armor and no other—though, like David, we may not look the part of the champion—we need fear no one, and no giant need be fearsome. We move forward into life unconstricted, and challenges ultimately give way, because we are clothed with the grace of God that is all the armor we will ever need. Amen.
[iv] This is true of churches, too, by the way. I use this overlooked verse of scripture when I conduct vestry retreats for other parishes, because often when churches are fearful and anxious about congregational decline they begin desperately trying to be more like some other church down the road that seems to be going gangbusters. Congregations will put on some other congregation’s armor; they’ll mimic someone else’s music, or worship, or program; but they soon discover that, figuratively speaking, they can’t move. They are paralyzed, trapped in an identity that is not theirs.
“You’re not going to believe this, but you have cancer.” In retrospect, these may not have been the urologist’s exact words when he called me on February 5, but it is accurate that his surprise was as genuine as mine. Fewer than 3% of men diagnosed with prostate cancer are younger than fifty.[i] I am forty-eight years old. Forty-eight year-old men almost never get prostate cancer. Unless there is a family history of prostate cancer, men usually don’t even begin having their PSA checked until age fifty. I only began having my PSA checked in my mid-forties because, in an odd coincidence, I have a close friend and colleague who was diagnosed with prostate cancer when in his forties.
PSA is “prostate specific antigen,” a chemical produced in the male body only by prostate cells. High PSA levels are the best indication of the presence of prostate cancer. The standard threshold measurement for elevated PSA is 4.0, but that’s misleading. That threshold is set for older men. For men under age 60, the threshold for elevated PSA is 2.5.[ii] The average PSA for a man in his forties is .7. In 2017, my PSA was 1.94. In 2018, it had risen to 2.4. Last November, it was 3.41. That steady increase over time alerted my primary care physician, who referred me to a urologist. The urologist ordered an MRI, followed by a needle biopsy. At every step, because of my age and lack of a known family history of prostate cancer, both physicians repeatedly said, “We’ll do this next test, but don’t worry. Men in their forties don’t get prostate cancer. It’s an older man’s disease.” Thus, the urologist’s surprise on February 5, when he received the biopsy results.
Prostate tumors are graded with a “Gleason score,” which describes the nature of the cancer cells. The more irregular the cells, the higher the Gleason score. Said differently, the higher the Gleason score, the more advanced and aggressive the cancer. Pre-cancerous cells are graded 1 or 2. Cancer cells are graded 3-5. Tumors receive two grades: one for the primary cells present and another for any secondary cancer cells present. The final Gleason score is the sum of these two numbers. If the primary cells are 3 and the secondary cells are 4, the tumor’s Gleason score is 3+4=7. The lowest (and therefore “best”) score a prostate tumor can receive is Gleason 6 (3+3). My needle biopsy suggested that I had a small, fully-contained Gleason 6 tumor in the peripheral zone of my prostate. There was inconclusive evidence that there might be an additional tumor elsewhere. The urologist’s counsel was that, though I could pursue immediate treatment if I wanted to, I could also follow an “active surveillance” protocol, in which I’d have regular and periodic PSA tests, MRIs, and biopsies to see if the tumor grew or became more aggressive. He said I might not need treatment for another 2-5 years.
I am blessed to live in Houston, so I sought a second opinion at MD Anderson, one of the world’s best cancer centers. I met with both a urological surgeon (Dr. John Davis) and a radiation oncologist (Dr. Seungtaek Choi). Based upon the MRI and biopsy I’d had previously, the MD Anderson physicians, too, offered me the options of immediate treatment or active surveillance. The decision was up to me. On March 16, I decided to move forward with a radical prostatectomy, in which a surgeon removes the entire prostate gland, some surrounding tissue, and the seminal vesicles. The six weeks between diagnosis and the decision to have surgery were, beyond doubt, the darkest of my life. Ignorance, uncertainty and indecision are demons that taunt and lurk around the edges of a health crisis, and all three demons plagued me in those days. As soon as I made the decision to have surgery, the shadows dispelled, and my anxiety washed away. The change in my demeanor was pronounced and immediate.
I needed to get through Easter before having surgery (I’m a priest, after all), and the earliest post-Easter date available on Dr. Davis’ surgical calendar was April 26. On that morning, I checked into MD Anderson, and Dr. Davis performed a Da Vinci robotic prostatectomy, making six incisions in my abdomen. (Eliza says I’ll look super cool at the beach, like I’ve survived a knife fight.)
For two weeks after surgery, I recovered slowly but with the felt assurance that surgery had removed a small and contained tumor, and I could now put the entire experience in the rearview mirror. Then, on May 11, I received the post-surgical pathology report, which upended me all over again. The small Gleason 6 tumor was, indeed, contained and successfully removed, but it turned out a much larger, Gleason 7 (3+4) tumor had been hiding in the interior of my prostate. This second tumor had not shown up on the MRI. The second tumor had escaped the prostate capsule and invaded the neck of my bladder. Dr. Davis removed the large tumor along with my prostate, but where the tumor was cut from the bladder neck, he got an unclean margin. (This was not in any way his error. The cancer at that spot was microscopic.)
It took a day for me to reach Dr. Davis, and several days beyond that to visit with Dr. Choi, the radiation oncologist. Those intermediate hours were a return to anxiety and shadow, but the explanation and commentary the physicians were able to offer on the pathology report provided comfort. The character of the Gleason 7 tumor classified it as pT3a, which means the cancer had spread outside the prostate gland but had not reached lymph nodes or seminal vesicles. The not-great news is that such a cancer has about a 40% chance of recurrence within ten years. The very good news is that the fifteen-year survival rate for such cancer is still above 95%. And if the cancer ever does recur, Dr. Choi is confident that radiation and hormone therapy can keep it in check.
This past Monday, June 7, I had my 6-week post-operative PSA check at MD Anderson. My PSA level was <.1, which means negligible. That’s exactly what one hopes for after a prostatectomy. On Monday evening, I told Jill that it had been the 4th best day of my life, ranking after my two kids’ birthdays and my wedding day.
I have recovered well from surgery. I have returned to the gym, and thanks to Dr. Davis’ world-class skills I have been spared the physiological difficulties sometimes associated with life after prostate surgery. I’m still exhausted at the end of each day, but even that is getting better.
I have learned practical lessons from the experience of the past several months. It is very good that I began having my PSA checked in my mid-forties. Though standard protocol is to wait until age fifty, I encourage men otherwise. PSA is simply an add-on test to regular annual blood work. Even if you have to pay a bit out of pocket, ask your physician to include it. It is very good that my primary care physician paid attention to the elevation of and trend in my PSA. It is very good that I followed up with a urologist. And in my case, it is very good that I pursued surgery when I did. Immediate treatment will not be the best decision for every man, but given the pT3a tumor, I shudder to think what condition I’d be in if I’d waited. The ultimate practical lesson is that we must each be advocates for our own health. Even the best physicians work with limited knowledge and diagnostic evidence. Standing up for oneself, listening to one’s gut, weighing the best evidence and advice, and making an educated decision are all crucial to one’s health and well-being.
I have also learned existential and spiritual lessons from this experience. I am a different person than I was on February 5. Some days, the urologist’s exclamation, “You’re not going to believe this, but you have cancer,” continues to ring true. Occasionally, it seems as if these past few months I’ve watched my life from the outside, as if viewing a movie about someone else. That I was a cancer patient, and that I am a cancer survivor, feels foreign and strange.
Most days, however, it feels all-too-intimate. And I am glad for that. I wish I hadn’t had prostate cancer, but paradoxically, I’m also glad I had it. It is making me a better priest. Empathy for those who receive frightening and potentially life-threatening diagnoses is no longer hypothetical. It is visceral and real.
I’ve also recognized as I never had before the importance of friends. The Celts speak of anamchara—soul friends—and in these months I’ve had several. Jill proved, again and again and again, to be the best life partner a human being could hope for (and far better than I deserve). My parents carried enough concern for me that I could set my self-concern down occasionally. The Rev. Morgan Allen, one of my closest friends in ministry and life, was available to me even when I didn’t realize I needed him. Julie Janos, my friend for thirty years and a courageous breast cancer survivor, talked me off the ledge and gave me clear perspective when my own was distorted. Parishioner and friend Bobby Tudor, a prostate cancer survivor himself, did the same. Parishioner Dr. Eric Strom, an MD Anderson physician who saves lives daily, helped me navigate the labyrinthine MD Anderson system. The Cathedral wardens and parishioners, as well as Bishop Andy Doyle, ministered to me as the Body of Christ. Not for a moment did I walk alone.
Cathedral parishioners know that I have a serious interest in the wisdom books Ecclesiastes and Job. Tethered to the Gospels, I believe these books convey the most important theology in the Bible. Ecclesiastes, Job, and Jesus teach us to engage the world fully—and to love completely—but also to be non-attached. With Gospel non-attachment, our recognition of the fragility and transience of life leads not to anxiety and fear, but to deep and abiding gratitude and joy. When we learn not to cling, we begin to live. This knowledge was academic for me prior to February 5. I now know it in my soul.
My PSA will be tested again in July and then, because of the pT3a larger tumor, every three months for five years. I am someone who craves resolution, and another lesson cancer is teaching me is to learn to live with something that, by definition, will never resolve (or, will only resolve—as do all things—when I go to meet my maker). My cousin Dinky Spears, who is battling cancer herself, taught me not to call the tumor “my cancer.” Cancer is something to expunge, not own. I agree with Dinky. That said, this has been, and on some level will continue to be, my cancer journey. As with all spiritual journeys, it is as much about the path we take and those with whom we travel as it is about the destination. For the path and the companions, I am eternally grateful.
She was known by parents as the “Drill Sergeant,” and she was the swimming instructor of last resort for kids who made quick and defeating work of the more cheerful and easy-going local swim teachers. People said she could teach anyone to swim. A wooden fence surrounded her pool, and parents had to say goodbye to their kids at the gate. No observing swimming lessons. You dropped your kid off, and by summer’s end, comes what may, little Johnny or Susie could—and did—swim. Except Eliza. After the second or third lesson, the backyard gate opened, and the Drill Sergeant nudged my child toward me. “I can’t teach her,” the Drill Sergeant exasperatedly said, “She’s on her own.” With that, the gate shut, and Eliza looked up at me with defeated eyes.
With no other good options, I began my brief career as a swim instructor. Eliza and I would head to the pool at the Y, and with excruciating slowness and mind-numbing repetition, we would start at one side of the swimming pool, I would back away from her one foot at a time, and she would dog paddle with abandon to reach me until we made it to the other side. Every time—every time—I let go of her, the expression on her face became a mixture of confusion and fear, as if, no matter how many times we’d done this before, it was a surprise to her to be untethered in the deep. Every time she reached me after a few seconds of flailing, the relieved grin on her face and the relaxation of her brow made my heart melt. And somehow, by summer’s end, Eliza could finally swim.
In Genesis today, we read the first half of the punchline of the story of the first man, the first woman, the fruit, and the serpent. Before today’s reading, the serpent entices the man and the woman to eat of the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil, and in the verse immediately prior to today’s passage, we are told that, upon tasting the fruit, “the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked.”
Today, God appears and begins to reveal to the man and woman the result of their decision to eat the fruit. Christian theology has traditionally interpreted this as God’s punishment for disobedience, the “original sin” that plagues humanity to this day. I have preached on that interpretation more than once. Instead of that, today I share that the ancient rabbis sometimes read this passage differently, not as sin and God’s retribution for sin, but as the primeval story of the emergence of human consciousness. In that case it is, in other words, the account of our divergence from mere instinct and reactive living. It is the story of Adam and Eve becoming human.
If Genesis 3 is a story not of original sin but of the dawn of human self-awareness, then the “curse” we begin to read about today is not punishment, but rather simply an explanation of what the experience of living entails for human beings, for creatures who have God-like consciousness but frail and mortal faculties and bodies to process and deal with that consciousness. After eating the fruit, like God the man and the woman can remember the past and imagine the future. They can hope, and dream, and plan. But unlike God, they cannot ensure that any of their hopes will flourish. The man and the woman will be stymied. Their memory will include disappointment. Their hope will be dashed. Their joy will be preempted by sorrow. This is the “curse” they unwittingly choose along with the forbidden fruit. This is what God warned them against. When they choose self-consciousness, with it comes the consciousness of loss. In a word, the man and woman introduce into their lives, grief.
Grief is a quintessentially human experience. That’s not to say that other animals don’t encounter grief. Famously, elephants grieve their dead, but when we observe them doing so, we say that, to that extent at least, elephants seem quite human. Grief is the crushing realization that everything in our lives, including our lives themselves and the lives of those we love, is transient. Unlike God, we and our world are ephemeral–the realization of which crushes us–which is why in the primeval story God so wants to protect us from this knowledge.
It is fitting that Genesis 3 is appointed for today, as we emerge from the COVID pandemic and begin to take stock of the past fifteen months, because like Adam and Eve opening their eyes in the garden, we have a dawning recognition of just what we have so recently lost. We’ve lost small things: discrete holidays with loved ones and friends, a summer vacation. We have lost momentous things: a graduation, a job. We have lost precious things: loved ones to the virus, or to the ceaseless other ravages that continued while we were cloistered from one another. And we have lost intangible things: Our blessed illusions of certainty about the future, our confidence that our carefully-constructed life plans will come to fruition, and even our faith in our competence to navigate the world.
The recognition of all these losses cascades over us, young and old. Psychologists call this deluge of loss cumulative grief, and it can drown us. There is a limit to the human capacity to grieve. And we have reached it. We find ourselves unable to process all of our individual and collective loss, and we see the effects of our inability all around us. Acts of random violence—explosions of frustration and powerlessness in the face of loss—are rampant on airplanes, against ambulance workers, in supermarkets, and elsewhere.[i] Incidence of societal depression has tripled.[ii] Stunningly, more than half of the young adult in the United States age 18-29 report chronic feelings of hopelessness, as they grapple with the loss of both their formative experiences in the past fifteen months and their plans for the future.[iii] And in one broad study of a cross-section of the population, seventy-three percent say that their mental health has deteriorated. Researchers call it “the pandemic within the pandemic.”[iv] So, what are we to do?
Last week’s episode of the radio show This American Life was on grief, and one section, by producer Sean Cole, was on cumulative grief. During the pandemic, Cole lost two parents, saw his serious relationship end, and endured the loss of that same girlfriend’s pregnancy. He is the poster child for cumulative grief. Cole, like so many, isn’t sure how his future will look. But at the end of telling his story he does come to this conclusion, “I was asking myself why we were all even here, what is was all for. I don’t have any faith or doctrine. I’m not even secure enough of my understanding of the cosmos to be an atheist. But I did come up with an answer. It’s simple…The reason we’re all here, I think, is to get each other to the other side.”[v]
Sean Cole spent time at the bedside of two dying parents, and on one level he means we are to help one another approach actual, physical death. But on another level, he is talking about all of our deaths, large and small…all of our losses, all of our griefs. In Genesis 3, the dawn of consciousness nearly drowns the man and the woman in grief as it casts them from paradise, but it does not cast them from one another. Even in their loss, they will walk forever through life together. They will help one another get to the other side.
When little Eliza was in that swimming pool, every time she became aware of the depth, no matter how often it happened, confusion and fear began to pull her under. Only by reaching out her arms and knowing they’d be met by one who loved her was she able to stay afloat and eventually learn to swim. That is an apt metaphor for our predicament. The only way we can keep from drowning, the only way we can move through grief, inch by inch; the only way we can discover hope and encounter joy amidst loss; the only way we can get to the other side, is together. And not as strangers, but as sisters, brothers, friends who trust.
I worry less these days about viruses and more about our societal willingness to castigate, and cancel, and demonize, and celebrate another’s mistake or error. I worry that we, both left and right, have become increasingly puritanical and self-righteous, so quick to require a litmus test of language and belief. These reactions, like the physical violence I described earlier, are another futile attempt to fend off grief by lashing out. In the long run, they do not work. I worry because each time we do these things—each time we narrow our communities and dismiss the other—we decrease the shoulders on whom our collective grief can rest. We lose the hands that can reach out to us as our losses pull us under the waterline. This is what Jesus is telling us in the Gospel today, as his own family and friends lash out at him.
We, as the Church, can provide a different witness. We can prevent one another from drowning in our grief. We can—we must—extend our arms in love to the one who is flailing. Because that is why we’re here, to help each other get to the other side.
It’s my first day back, and I thought I’d start with a lawyer joke. (How many lawyers in the congregation? Raise your hands…) There are so many good lawyer jokes. I decided on this one: What’s the difference between a good lawyer and a great lawyer? A good lawyer knows the law. A great lawyer knows the judge!
My father, a retired attorney, doesn’t like lawyer jokes. I thought he was too sensitive until I became a priest, and now I get it. I don’t like priest jokes either. Lawyer jokes tend to depict attorneys as self-serving, callous, or even malicious sharks, looking to take advantage of easy marks. But no lawyer joke I’ve ever heard (even the not-too-biting ones) approximates my experience of my father’s law office in Paragould, Arkansas. Growing up, I was at my dad’s law firm constantly, and in high school I served as his courier and file clerk. In my father’s waiting room, I would encounter farmers anxious about their crops, the elderly and ill desperate to get their affairs in order, and (because my father was also the deputy prosecuting attorney) abused spouses fearful of the wrath of a husband who should be behind bars. Often, the people sitting in my father’s waiting room were furtive, restless, and barely suppressing a flight response. At the same time, they were overwhelmed and paralyzed. They needed help. That’s why they were there. Life had confronted them with something they did not know how, and could not muster the strength, to handle: ruin, death, danger. The people in my father’s waiting room needed an advocate.
In the Gospel today, the disciples are not unlike those people in dad’s office. They are at the cusp of loss. They can feel it. The Upper Room in which they gather with Jesus feels as much like a bunker as a dining hall. The ominous creep of ruin, death, and danger unnerves them. Jesus has told them that he will soon be gone from them, and everything in the atmosphere gives them good reason to believe him. Jesus has been their lodestar. Before, they were fishermen, small business owners, IRS agents, political activists…but Jesus reshaped their lives entirely. They gave up everything for this new venture that was, well, everything. And now everything is about to be lost. Jesus is leaving them, and they must face a ruinous world alone. They need an advocate.
Advocate comes from the Latin advocare. It means “to a call to one’s aid.” When one cries out in need, an advocate responds. When one is silenced, an advocate offers her voice. When threats crowd in, an advocate places himself between the weak one and the danger, fending off the assault. That is what an advocate is. That is what an advocate does.
In the Gospel today, as Jesus prepares the disciples for what is to come, he knows their predicament even better than they do. Jesus knows (as he says) that sorrow already fills their hearts, and that the real test hasn’t even yet come. And Jesus knows that this motley crew is not up to the challenge they will face. So Jesus promises the Twelve what they don’t yet even realize they need: He promises them an advocate.
The Advocate is the St. John’s name for the Holy Spirit. In Greek it is Paraclete, which means exactly the same things as advocare, to call to one’s aid. Jesus promises then, as Jesus promises now, that he will send the Holy Spirit to those who follow him. And if we call that Spirit to our aid, the Spirit will come. Holy Scripture even tells us what that looks like. (You might even jot this down.)
First and foremost, when our circumstances leave us so fearful, anxious, and confused that we don’t even know how to pray, St. Paul tells us in Romans that the “Spirit helps us in our weakness, for when we do not know how to pray as we ought…the Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for [us].”[i]
Second, in Acts today, when the Holy Spirit arrives on Pentecost, we see two things: When the fearful followers of Jesus are cowed into silence, the Spirit gives them powerful voice, to speak even in words and ways previously foreign to them.[ii] And conversely, for the those whose impatience or anxiety impedes their hearing, the Holy Spirit opens their clogged ears and helps them listen.[iii]
Third, a bit later in John’s Gospel than today’s reading, when the resurrected Jesus breathes the Holy Spirit onto the Twelve, the Spirit commissions them to go into the world on Jesus’ behalf.[iv] In that moment, they cease being disciples who sit passively and receive and become apostles sent forth and empowered to act.
This is also what the Holy Spirit does for us. When the swirling world upends us, the Spirit articulates the deepest needs of our hearts to God. When the cacophonous world silences us, the Spirit gives us ears to understand amidst confusion and tongues to speak through noise. When the ominous world threatens us, the Spirit empowers us to walk with courage, confidence, and strength, where without the Spirit we would be lost.
My father is a very good lawyer. I realized this when I was his courier. I would visit the courthouse, the jail, the other attorneys’ offices, and it was apparent that everyone had great respect for my dad. Beyond that, some of the other local lawyers held him in awe that bordered on trepidation. They knew that when my father stepped into the courtroom, they had most likely met their match even before the judge banged his gavel. They knew that when my father rose to speak, whoever sat at his table had a powerful friend.
I saw my dad prosecute a case once. One summer afternoon on my rounds, I slipped upstairs and sat in the back of the steamy courtroom, and very quickly I understood why so many revered my dad. I would not have wanted to oppose him. And if I were in need, I would have wanted him as my advocate.
So it is with the Holy Spirit of God. It turns out that, by analogy, the lawyer joke with which I began this sermon holds true: What’s the difference between a good advocate and a great advocate? A good one knows the law, but a great one knows the judge. In the case of the Holy Spirit, this Advocate knows more than law, or, we might substitute, the ways of the world. This Advocate knows the judge, the one on high. This Advocate springs forth from the very heart of God. The Holy Spirit is God, and thus there is no greater advocate. With the Spirit at our table—praying for us when we know not how to pray, giving us ears to hear and tongues to speak, empowering us when the world would sap our strength—with the Spirit at our table, those who would stand against us will quake. The powers of this world will know that we are no easy mark. With the Holy Spirit as our advocate, we ultimately cannot fail and will not lose.
As most of you know, the need for God’s Spirit has been clear and present to me these past few months. My cancer diagnosis at age forty-eight shook me from complacent living and threatened to cast me into a dark place. My surgery and recuperation have forced me to acknowledge my own human frailty like nothing had before. My prospective journey of periodic tests to make sure the cancer is expunged requires that I, like every cancer patient, live with a lack of definite resolution that goes against my nature. I have had to rely on the Holy Spirit and upon you, its apostles, more in these days than ever in my life. I have needed the Spirit’s prayer, its voice, its discernment, and its empowerment. And as always, the Spirit has been faithful. I rejoice at being back among you.
In the Gospel today, the resurrected Jesus appears to the disciples, but as with every other resurrection story in the gospels, the disciples have trouble recognizing him. When confronted with the risen Lord, there is startlement, confusion, doubt, testing. Mostly, there is the fatalistic inertia of what the disciples expect the world to present to them, and when the world before them breaks that mold, they don’t know how to respond or what to do.
How like them we are. We are raised and formed to expect the world to be a certain way. We believe in a regular, even pedantic world, in which all is mundane and/or explicable by processes that can be nailed down and defined. If anything ever surprises us, the surprise only lasts until we have had a chance to figure it out or explain it away. C.S. Lewis perhaps articulated our way of being in the world most aptly in his recasting of “Twinkle, twinkle, little star”: “Twinkle, twinkle, little star. I know quite well just what you are. You are just revolving gases, forming into solid masses.”[i] There is no wonder here.
When something happens to us that doesn’t fit the mold, when we have an encounter that truly and inherently slips our understanding and upends our expectations, we react with incredulity. The confusion is usually too much for us, so we willfully ignore the rub and go on with our lives as though it never happened, like those followers of Jesus mentioned in the Gospels who ultimately find the inexplicability of Jesus too much to take and go back to their old lives.
As we learn in today’s Gospel, Jesus will not have it so. Resurrection has happened. It will not be explained rationally or by the mundane, and its inexplicable reality confronts the Twelve. And Jesus will not allow them to lapse back into their old way of seeing the world. Jesus is insistent, displaying an urgency to the disciples rare in the Gospels. That the disciples reckon with Easter, that they lean into it rather than furtively flee, is clearly of vital importance to him. Why? What difference does it make?
On Palm Sunday morning, as I was driving to the Cathedral, on NPR Krista Tippet replayed her 2016 interview with Irish poet Michael Longley.[ii] Longley is known, along with Seamus Heaney, as a poet of “the Troubles,” the decades-long socio-religious conflict in Northern Ireland marked by terror and civilian casualty. Even before the Troubles, Longley’s earliest formative memories are of his father, a trench warfare soldier in World War I, screaming through his nightmares in the middle of the night. All that is to say, the subject matter of much of Longley’s poetry, like his life, is grim. And yet, somehow through the grief and vexation of his verse, there is a luminescence to Longley’s poetry. Somehow, he recognizes that there is, always, a dual reality at play in his encounters with the world: the mundane and something else.
One of Longley’s most well-known poems is “the Ice-Cream Man,” about a local man who owned an ice cream shop and was murdered by a sectarian. The man’s shop, loved by all, had featured twenty-one flavors of ice cream. After the murder, Longley’s young daughter took a basket of wildflowers and laid them on the sidewalk outside the ice cream parlor. What was to most passers-by unnoticeable, was to Longley a revelation. In his poem, he begins by listing flavors of ice cream—Rum and raisin, vanilla, butterscotch, walnut, peach—but then transitions to a seemingly endless list of wildflowers: “thyme, valerian, loosestrife, Meadowsweet, tway blade, crowfoot, ling, angelica… marjoram, cow parsley, sundew, vetch…” The effect is that Longley finds a path from something ugly to something beautiful, or perhaps better said reveals the beautiful in the tragic, without for a moment letting go of grief. He sees a dimension of grace where others see only the brute and prosaic layer of reality.
Various sources claim that Michael Longley is an atheist, and he calls himself a “sentimental disbeliever.” But when pressed, Longley offers more nuance. He says, “I do believe in the transcendental. I believe that poetry and art, without a transcendental element, doesn’t really exist for me…. [It] is all a transcendental experience for me. My heart stops when I discover an orchid…And then, when I hear a bird sing, it goes through me like an electric shock. These are the things that matter to me. And I would call that transcendental.” Though a poet, one gets the sense that he means this literally and not only as metaphor.
And, despite his protestation that something more religiously organized is not for him, Longley also slips in the admission, “Once every four or five years, I take communion, and I believe in the poetry of it — the poetry of it.”
What makes the difference? How is it that the world is neither fatalistic nor merely inert stuff to Michael Longley? How is it that a life lived in the very shadow of such pain, and grief, and terror finds itself repeatedly taken aback by beauty and wonder? Longley explains it as the poetic sensibility. He tells Krista Tippet, “I have this secret life no one knows about…For me, it’s quite an extraordinary gift to see something beautiful…[It’s] extraordinary. And it’s a way of having more than one life.”
Intriguingly, Longley also borrows a phrase from Horace, and says he, and poets like him, are, in fact, “priests.” The basic meaning of “priest” is, of course, to be a conduit of the divine, to communicate truth that otherwise risks being undetected, and where most see only death, Longley sees the buds of new life. Where most see only grief and pain, he encounters nascent hope. Where most see shadow and drab gray, for Longley the world shines with color. Michael Longley sees a dimension of reality that most of us, most of the time, miss, and in response he cannot help but share that vision with the rest of us.
Longley lives, as he says, two lives at once. The first is the life that recognizes fully and well the world’s tragedy and, even more often, the world’s numbing banality. But the second life is the life that encounters, knows, and is a conduit of the beautiful, the poetic, and (dare we say it) the miraculous that exists side-by-side with—and in—the everyday. Longley calls this “adoration.” Speaking of his poetry, Krista Tippet calls it (despite Longley’s claim of disbelief) “religious in the best sense of the word.”
Michael Longley helps us understand Jesus’ insistence with the disciples today. I would call Longley’s way of being in the world an Easter sensibility. He has seen and recognized the miraculous in the mundane. His eyes are open, and no matter how unrelentingly the world grinds, he will not shut them. Jesus, as the Resurrected One, knows that this makes all the difference, for the disciples, for us, and for the fragile world in which we live. Because Easter people—people who look upon the world and see a different dimension of reality, who see wonder, beauty, and the presence of the living God—cannot help but live differently as people of hope, and love, and grace. That living, in turns, redeems the world, making Easter ever more a reality.
At our Sunday evening Celtic Eucharist, The Well, we often end our worship with a post-Communion prayer from the Church of Ireland that embodies for me this Easter sensibility. It asks that we remain awake, that we encounter the risen Christ, and that we live in response to that wonder. We pray this:
“Strengthen for your service, Lord, these hands that holy things have taken; may these ears with have heard your Word be deaf to all clamor and dispute; may these tongues which have sung your praise be free from deceit; may these eyes which have seen the tokens of your love shine with the light of hope; and may these bodies which have been fed with your body be refreshed with the fullness of your life; glory to you forever. Amen.”
[i] I first heard this from the Very Rev. Herbert O’Driscoll, who attributed it to C.S. Lewis. There are many versions of this ditty floating around the internet, attributed to various authors.