Mercy Clothed in Light, Transfiguration and India

The Transfiguration, Year C. Last Sunday of the Epiphany:

The poet, Jane Kenyon, died after the onset of cancer at age fifty. She chronicled the experience of he loss of her physical abilities as the cancer progressed over 15 months. One of her poems written during this time in her life is so central to my thought this day when we talk about the brilliant light that runs through the readings this morning.  This is her poem entitled: “Notes from the Other Side.”

“I divested myself of despair    and fear when I came here.

Now there is no more catching one’s own eye in the mirror,

There are no bad books, no plastic, no insurance premiums, and of course

No illness.   Contrition does not exist, nor gnashing

of teeth.       No one howls as the first clod of earth hits the casket.

The poor we have no longer with us. Our calm hearts strike only the hour.

And God, as promised, proves to be mercy clothed in light.

And God, as promised, proves to be mercy clothed in light.

I returned Monday from our daughter’s wedding in India. The couple met and fell in love in Boston and The VT woman has just expanded the reach of our clan to the one place that seemed farthest away from our experience of the world. For one thing the Indians say they have either 3.9 or 32 million gods. I reply jokingly, ”is that all?” My head is spinning after hearing about the top twenty gods in the Indian pantheon and my eyes glaze over after 21. In a conversation with Jean, my wife, I said,” If there is one God in all creation that I could worship it would be a god of compassion”, or like Jane Kenyon wrote:  “And God as promised, proves to be mercy clothed in light.

In their defense the Indians say these God’s are aspects or attributes of the divine. We do somewhat the same thing with our thousand Saints or so. St Francis being one of our favorites. Maybe we all need some being some physical material incarnation of the Divine light to shine through the eye of the horse or the cow, a tiger or a Mother Teresa. In fact here in the readings this morning that is what happens. The light is so enveloping and so brilliant that when Moses comes out from the presence with the Holy he covers his face so that he will not blind the children of Israel.  Similarly with Jesus when he is enveloped in the cloud with Moses and Elijah, the three apostles are stunned and awed by the brilliance of the light.

So aren’t we using Jesus, Moses and Elijah to open a door to us into the heart of God? Of course we say Jesus is God with us and so it is that God takes the form of a human being so that we can see what it means for us to be truly human; to get a glimpse into the humane and human heart of the Divine.

The ultimate goal of the life of prayer and Christian practice is to become compassion clothed in light. Or to become like Jesus, not to become Jesus, but being ourselves, become like him.

Paul in his letter to the disparate church in Corinth writes his letter on love. Paul is not talking about romantic love; he uses the Agape in the Greek. Agape means something like unconditional love.

To love means to care about another‘s well being as much as you care about your own. As one of the saints said, “Practice love by putting love where there is no love and you will find love.”

Part of what I experienced in India was an awakening to what I really hold onto about Christianity, that it is so incarnational, so material, it is flesh and bone and sinew and brain and heart. It is a living breathing vibrating community of people who are trying to be compassion clothed in light. We stumble and fall along the way, but as we follow the enfleshed Son of God we find ways that we can live into the life of the holy.

In India Mother Teresa, a young Albanian Nun when confronted (as we were) with the suffering on the streets of Calcutta, the dying left to succumb in the gutters, she took them in. She couldn’t stop them from dying, from lives of deprivation–rather she gave them during the last months of their lives a place where they could be kept clean and warm and safe and a bed to sleep in/ she gave them back their dignity.  The sisters of Charity continue that ministry in New Delhi and Calcutta and Haiti and many other parts of the world to this day.

If you have been to India, it is a nation of 1.3 billion people. The challenges are daunting, and yet this young nun knew somehow she had to start somewhere. She is a window into the divine mercy of God in Light.

As I grow older I think that the task has been to grow into compassion, to grow into the God who is mercy clothed in light. When I was young it was a God of justice that I sought. As I grow older it is to live with compassion for all people and creatures. There is such a world of hurt that it seems by putting love and compassion where there is no love that justice will come. Love will challenge greed and all other self seeking that draws us from the love of god our neighbor and our self respect.

I think we all probably know this one truth about God that our God is a god of compassion who demonstrates to us over and over again the power of unconditional love to turn hearts and to transform the energy in a room or the world. Our task now it to become like Him

I look forward to being with you during the next ten weeks as you await your new priest. I see you living out this Gospel in this community. You are working to become children of the light, people of compassion. In my time with you two years ago, I watched as you brought a woman in who had been disfigured by her husband, I watched as you dealt with the devastation of Hurricane Irene and how you reached out to parishioners and neighbors. I look forward over the next weeks to listen to you tell some of your own moments and times of transfiguration. As we enter Lent it will be a good time to reflect and pray and divest ourselves of those things that keep us from being fully alive and human and humane. Amen

Epiphany 2013

The mixed congregation, it seemed, hardly noticed the Christmas Crèche that was placed near the front of the church.  A young girl, perhaps ten, from the Latino congregation that shared our space knelt before the images of the magi, Mary, Jesus, and Joseph, shepherds, animals and angels and stayed there for a moment or an eternity marveling in the scene.  Finally she crossed herself and walked away. For a moment those clay figures had transported her to that place long ago in Bethlehem, and now, by her reverence, made present here.

An Introduction into a Guided Meditation for Epiphany

For much of my ministry I invited people to become a part of the story. Epiphany was full of imagery that could be translated into our present journey.  And with the children and the adults, we’d go on a journey to visit the site of the birth. We travelled the long road across the desert. We watched the night sky and followed the star. We configured the trail, smooth or rocky, flat or hilly, (after all the journey is at least half the point of the story). Then as we came in site of the place where the star stood still over the manger, we’d imagine the scene. We’d stop and take our time to gaze at the child, his mother, and the father, the whole tapestry of creatures, the night air, the smells and sounds.

Then each of us would be asked to offer a gift that we had brought along to give to the child. We invited each one to look into the Child’s eyes. What did they notice, how did they feel, and what was the child telling them through his eyes, through the movement of his body, through the telepathy of his mind?

Perhaps, Mary or Joseph, or the angel also spoke to them. We didn’t want to confuse the scene too much, but you can imagine it would be a rich encounter to have been in conversation with any of them.

Before we turned away to begin the journey home, the Christ child gave each of us a gift, and we put it in our packs and brought them home to open once we had returned from the journey “by another way”.

It was hard for congregation sitting in pews, used to an eight minute sermon, to shift their ways of listening and experiencing the gospel. Yet, it was often, that all we had carried with us on our impromptu pilgrimage to offer as a gift to the child was ourselves, our hearts, and our love.

The gifts we received …infinite.

The Guided Meditation to Visit the Christ Child

I invite you to close your eyes and notice your breathing… notice any tension in your body….  See if you can release any tension…. And breathe into it…

You are on a road: notice the road… is it smooth or rough, straight or winding, wide or narrow?   Notice your surroundings… what do you see along the road?

Notice the heavens…. The bright star that helps light your way….

The star now leads you to a place where it stands still…It shines its rays on a scene before you in the distance…

You approach a child who lied swaddled in a bed of hay. The child’s eyes open and look into your eyes….

Stay as long as you can and look into each others eyes….

In the silent communication between you and the child something has been spoken to you, a word, a sense of being, a feeling…. See if you can hear it….

You remember you have a gift for the child… What is it?…..

Leave it there and notice all of your surroundings….

Have they changed?….

Now you must leave.

Bow to the child and return by a different road. Notice your surroundings …

And return to this place that you left minutes or lifetimes ago….

And open your eyes.

On Being Called, Epiphany 5

On Being Called: Luke 5:1-11, Epiphany 5  Simon Peter seeing the great catch of fish that threatened to sink his boat ,,,”fell at Jesus knees and said ‘depart from me for I am a sinful man.’”

I was called to the priesthood at the age of fifteen.* It was like a dawning on a process that had been ongoing since before birth. It was simply the realization that maybe I could be of some use to the holy, to evoke and invite youth like me into an exploration into the realm of the inner life as it leads to action.  It was about people caring about one another and going out of one’s way to show compassion. I had seen it witnessed in many people, some ordained most not, who were simple good people who tried their best to love God, their neighbor and themselves.

But a fifteen year old has many questions. Maybe Max our priest would have the answers.  Max was the portly Canadian priest who had been a chaplain in the Royal Canadian Navy during WWII. Max was my model: jovial, friendly with all the neighbors, and great with us teens and pre-teens, the aged and young families. I could talk to Max about anything.

I told Max I had received this call, but I didn’t feel worthy. Max knew much about my miscreant youth so he had some idea of what I spoke. Max said to me, “None of us are worthy. We are made worthy not of ourselves, but by the grace of God”.

Even more true after all these years.

*So confident of this “call”, I approached The Diocesan Bishop, Anson Phelps Stokes, the distinguished blue blood Yankee, to ask to be received as a postulant for Holy Orders. I was eighteen. The Bishop wisely said, “You are too immature. Go to College and Seminary. Then come back.”

Jesus Goes Home: Epiphany 4.

Epiphany 4, Year C:   “All those in the assembly rose up and thrust him out of the town, and led him to a brow of the hill to cast him off the cliff… but he passed through them.” (A loose translation of Luke 4: 28-30)

Those of us of a certain age were required by law to return to our hometowns and register for the draft. It was around 1966 and the build-up in Vietnam was underway. The local draft board was commissioned to fulfill a quota of young men to serve in Vietnam. I was exempt from the draft as the sole surviving son of a flyer killed in WWII. The only way the draft board was going to get me to help fill their quota was for me to enlist. That wasn’t going to happen.

Battle lines had hardened in communities and families. You didn’t have to go home and horrify the neighbors with news the Kingdom of God was at hand. All you had to do was refuse to enlist.

Some draft boards and other official and semi-official groups routinely would ask, “Would you rather be Red than Dead.” I probably answered, that neither prospect was attractive. But I thought later you can’t close the hope and possibility that governments and people will change. Someday we may walk hand in hand as brothers and sisters…and…we are all one body… the hopes of the peasant in Vietnam are no different from our own…that you can become the evil you oppose….and the word Red in Russian means beautiful.” I never heard from the draft board again.

My adopted Aunt Kay lost her son in Vietnam. Frankie was nineteen. When the flag was presented during his funeral, she refused to accept it. The priest, a Marine, was shocked and so was the town. Like Rachel wailing over her lost children, she with a thousand Gold Star Mothers carried her loss and anger to the nation. She continues to fight for all those adopted sons and daughters who have gone off to war.

Over the years there are some who would have liked to find some cliff over which to throw Kay, but she spoke with such force and so palpable a grief that no one could deny her truth. She still lives in the same peach colored house in my hometown.

 

 

*Long before the lottery my high school friend Richard refused to appear for his physical exam. In February he was “requested” to appear for induction. By then he was already in Canada and indicted by the government. In four years these summary rulings against those who resisted the draft was overturned and he was able to be with his father in 1971 as he died.  His home now is in Canada. Rich is now an elected member of the local government of a town North of Toronto where he works to maintain the viability of the Niagara escarpment.

 

 

 

The Young Man Who Built His Shelter in the River: Epiphany 8

“Those who do not…come to me and hear my words and do them…are like a man who built a house on the ground without a foundation…” Luke 6: 47-49

Some of us know a young man who built his shelter on an island in the middle of the river. He wanted to be as close as possible to the music of the creek as it flowed over the round smooth stones that had been polished over a million years.

He built his shelter and lived there until a hurricane moved up the coast and dumped 17 inches of rain on the region. His shelter was swept away as waters rushed and rose over the island and he had to swim for his life. Mercifully he survived.

Some of us love the young man because he wanted to be so close to the heart of the water that he risked everything to live, eat, sleep, meditate and be alone with her in all her peace and all her fury.

Others think he was foolhardy.  Some are in-between. It’s almost too commonplace to build a house with a sure foundation. What if we built more temporary shelters, shelters close to the ground near the water, shelters that could be disassembled in a few minutes and carried to higher ground?  After all that’s what the Tent of Ark of the Covenant was all about, wasn’t it?  (See Exodus 31:7)

I’d rather have a home that when the floods come, I can move it to a higher place and the rest of the time to be close to God in the wild heart of the earth and water and the brilliant night sky.

Okay, but what about the cold winter wind and the hot summer dust storm?

So we need to be so comfortable?  Maybe a little too romantic or maybe I’m weary of taking care of foundations.

Another thought on building on a sure foundation:

The choral director encouraged the Bass section of the choir. “The Bass part,” he said, “is the foundation of choral music. It can be a quiet drone or loud and thunderous and it gives body and fullness to the whole.”

For me the Jewish and Christian texts are the Bass notes, the foundation. I find myself coming back to these notes even as I revel, muse, exalt and ponder the higher tones: the tenor, soprano and alto. It’s like coming home to a shelter whose foundation will not be compromised by every wind that blows or each stream that overflows its banks.

 

Epiphany 7: Forgiveness and the Love of One’s Enemy

Jesus said, “I say to you that hear: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you…” Luke 6: 27-38

You might have read earlier in this series that my father died in the crash of his B-17 in WWII. The effect on the family was devastating and long lasting. The grief carried us much of our lives, and because our grief was great so was my anger at the NAZI’s and subsequently with the Germans. You may note that I have a German name (which means chair maker). It’s complicated.

As seminarians we sometimes gathered at Cronin’s bar in Harvard Square. Cronins had tables that could seat eight of us and this day the beloved Hebrew Scholar and next dean of the seminary sat across from me and a German seminarian from Harvard Divinity School. Here we’d sit for an hour or two and discuss the state of the church and the world.

The great professor, who in a sermon still remembered, had recently quoted his dying father who told  him, “May you live in interesting times”. The professor commented it is an ancient Chinese curse or a blessing.  It was 1968 and it was both.

After a few beers, mind and mouth loosened, I said to the German student next to me, “I don’t like Germans.”  He asked calmly, “Why is that?”

I explained what happened, how hard it was on my mother and what it was like for the father never to return.

He responded, “My father also never returned from the war. He was killed on the Russian Front. I was five and I had two siblings. My mother struggled for many years after and during the war”.

There was a long silence. A lifetime of hatred and prejudice seemed to take its time to melt away. Who knows what phenomenon took place. It was easier to keep the enemy in his box. Now the son of my father’s enemy knew almost exactly what it was to watch our mother’s grief and struggle. I looked into the face of my brother and said … nothing. There was nothing to say. We understood the thin line that separated us was now irrevocably broken.

All there was left was the sorrow and the idealistic resolution to make the world a place where there would no longer be children like us. We failed. Yet we tried with much might. We still live in a hope for a new day that will, one day, arise.

The “Madman”: Epiphany 6

Year C, 6th Epiphany Luke 6: 17-26”Blessed are you poor for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who hunger now, for you shall be satisfied. Blessed are you who weep now, for you shall laugh…”

I’d watched the madman for months. He came to the coffee shop overlooking the lake and the mountains beyond. He always wore a threadbare jacket with a tear at the elbow. He paced around his outdoor table, talked to some invisible being on his left, then to the right, stopped, and turned to speak with some invisible behind, always in movement, fluid, and unpredictable.

It was early Sunday and the man was in the distance now, some 75 yards from where I sat.Three Sugar Maple trees stood tall and straight some 75 yards away.  The madman stopped in front of the first tree. He was still, all movement ceased. For a minute or a millennium he was the tree. After a time he opened his backpack, the one he always carried with him, and spread what seemed to be an offering at the base of the tree. He moved on to the next and the third, pausing for long moments at each tree leaving his offering there.

Three seagulls patiently waited until the madman left and ate the offering he left behind, squabbled over the last morsel, and flew away.

A friend commented when I told her the story, “You can never tell when God will show up”.

Another madman, today or a long time ago was mad enough to see the holy in the tree, the poor the hungry and the mourner. Who but a madman would stop and pay homage to the tree whose life’s blood is so sweet it can bring tears of joy to the palate.

Jesus was able to turn the world on its head. He blesses the poor, the hungry and those who mourn. Maybe because he knew that those times without the necessities for survival can make us vulnerable enough to open to the possibility of God, our absolute need for the divine. He knew that the heart that mourns is also a heart that loves. Otherwise there would be no tears. To so radically insulate ourselves from hunger, sorrow or poverty, maybe we also isolate ourselves from the heart of God and from our mad, vulnerable selves.