Nice Guys Finish First. Epiphany 2. Written in 2014, I’m writing this week about a friend who had died too young. You know what havoc that can make for the Sunday Sermon.
Nice Guys Finish First. Epiphany 2. Written in 2014, I’m writing this week about a friend who had died too young. You know what havoc that can make for the Sunday Sermon.
Transfiguration: Year A Frank* and I hiked Mt Moosilauke in New Hampshire’s White Mountains in late summer. We arrived at the top and were enveloped in cloud. Moosilauke means bald place in what I guess is Abenaki. The bald place with spectacular views was denied us. Our attention was drawn to plants, scrub trees and late flowers covered in hoar frost. Hoar frost is when dew meets freezing temperatures and laces whatever it touches with a crystalline layer of ice. The top of the mountain became an enclosure with permeable walls that breathed in and out with the movement of the mist and the light breeze.
The bald place became a tabernacle where earth, wind, fire and ice conspired to transform the space into its particular form and beauty. Each leaf, branch, sedge, rock, lichen, and vine invited us closer to witness its transformation into frozen garments of ice and light. On a clear day when you can “see forever”, you don’t often have the opportunity to notice what’s at your feet or in front of your nose. That day was a kind of transfiguration. Mount Tabor in Israel is one sight where pilgrims are told the Transfiguration took place. Today we may ride to the top where, wouldn’t you know, a church and convent have been built. The mount is smaller than Moosilauke and yet clouds from the Mediterranean and from winds drifting north from the Sea of Galilee carry much potential for transfiguration. Maybe Jesus had always been radiant, clothed in light
For me it’s totally real and present that Jesus would be in intimate conversation with his spiritual mentors, Moses and Elijah. Who would you and I invite to the mountain with us? Certainly a good friend and who else? Jesus, Mary, Abraham Heschel, Merton, Nouwen? It was almost 2000 years after the event that we were there. Diminutive nuns sold us beautiful carved olive wood crosses and we could see for miles over the valley. When Jesus is transfigured into light and holiness, the voice from the cloud announces, “This is my beloved son, listen to him.” Haven’t some of us in our revelry or madness heard a similar voice saying, “You are my beloved son or daughter?” The second part of the voice from the cloud directed to the disciples, “Listen to Him,” was absent in my times on the bald place and on Mt Tabor. It is not important that you listen to me. I am like the old monk who sits beside the river and hands out river water to anyone who would pass by. We point to Him. It is to Him where we attune our ears to hear the words that open the mind and the heart. And don’t stay on the mountaintop. Your transfigured self is needed right where you are in your everyday life, when clothed in light, you know your being is valued by God. *Frank Cloherty is a Roman Catholic priest who became a friend when we shared congregations adjacent to each other in Malden and Revere, Massachusetts. He is now living in Quincy, MA
“Blessed are the poor in spirit…” Matthew 5: 1-12. Micah 6:7-8.
In my first parish a beleaguered member of the congregation complained, “You always talk about the poor. What about us?” So I said, “When I talk about the poor it is about us.” It’s about those of us who are not poor.
The problem here is that Jesus is about the poor. The prime concern for the poor is probably to secure enough food to feed their family and warm blankets and a roof over their heads. Most of the folk in the church were running away so fast from the memory of poverty that they never wanted to see it again. What did the poor have to do with us?
It could be useful to understand that we are all in the same boat. When we don’t see ourselves as poor, could Jesus be offering poverty as a goal for our spiritual direction? He points the direction toward a relationship with the One Thing that is necessary; our relationship with God. For example, if one is or isn’t poor Jesus points in the direction towards those things which keep us from that one critical relationship with God. To what do we hang on? What holds us hostage? What possessions, ideas, hurts, injustices or what anything keeps us from the one thing that is necessary?
The poor in spirit are those who, with God’s grace, remove the veil that separates from the holy. Like the pure in heart, they see God because that is what they want to see. Their will is focused on God, the God in and through all creation, the God in the neighbor and the enemy. Thus the goal is to will the one thing that is necessary, the love and mercy of God and to see through, as much as we can, the eyes of the Holy.
It’s hard to see with the eyes of God, but not impossible. Poverty as a spiritual direction is one of the steps that lead to God. It is to have enough for the day, as it was for the Hebrews in the wilderness, but not too much to separate us from the merciful and generous heart of God. The problem for those of us with too many things is that they own us, we do not own them. The real poor may have a greater insight into the heart of God. They understand they are dependent on the goodness of the holy.
It’s not all up to us. Whether we are rich because of fortune, race, gifts and hard work, we know it may be gone in the blink of an eye. What is important is the one thing that is necessary; to open the door into the presence of the holy; to see each other and the creation as the true gifts we are.
Gandhi’s comment about the poor has been instructive throughout a long ministry. After all our plans and prayers Gandhi asked, “What difference will it make to the poor?” Clearly
Gandhi knew the poor.
We are the poor and we are not the poor. Any confusion is mine. We travel on humbly walking with God. Chosen or not we are enfolded in the arms of God’s love. `We know God’s mercy because God has been merciful to us. We walk in justice because we have lived in times of God’s great compassion. We put on the mantle of poverty because it reduces the clutter and focuses on one thing; the key that opens us to the mercy, justice and love of God. All else passes, the one with the most toys…loses.
And with the Mahatma I ask, “What difference will any of this make to the poor?”
3rd Epiphany, Isaiah: 9: 1-4, Matthew 4: 12-23:
Galilee and Capernaum, a town in Galilee, are in the North West part of modern day Israel. Capernaum is on the Northern part of the Sea of Galilee and they are some of the unlikely places that Jesus and Isaiah make holy by telling their stories. I’m convinced that the ground we walk on is sacred space. Are all spaces holy? There have to be some places where the ground has been so scorched by the ashes of the dead that they cannot be considered holy sites. And yet at places like Dachau and other killing fields, the very ashes of those who perished cry out in outrage, grief and prayer.
Capernaum is not a place of such memory. It is a space of beginnings, callings to the longing heart, healings and transformations. It is holy ground. The ground of the West End of Boston in the early part of the 20th Century is also to me and my Dad, (my step father) Holy Ground. And yet I could never get him to take me back for a tour. The place where he lived was long ago bull- dozed out of existence. It was a tenement where he lived with his mother and two siblings.
He was generous with memories. He with his younger brother would enter the train yards in the North Station and gather bits of coal and the blocks of wood placed under the wheels of trains to keep them from rolling for the fire in their stove. They’d venture to the North End furniture stores to gather wood from crates to burn. He had a good voice and would sing as people from the suburbs arrived by train at North Station and money was tossed to him. He lit the Sabbath fires for Jewish neighbors and sang to get into the movies in Scollay Square.
I joked with him later, “You’re the poorest man I ever knew.” He opened that world to me and the old West End grew to be a sacred place for me and he would not take me there. “It’s all gone now,” he said and left it at that. One study by Herbert Ganz entitled Urban Villagers, chronicled the old neighborhood where immigrants, African American servants of the well to do on Beacon Hill, Jews, Eastern Europeans, Roman Catholics, Italians and Irish made a community that worked. It was not primarily a neighborhood of conflict it was a community of cooperation. It must have been a great tutor for him for he had few prejudices.
Once again I asked him to take me to the old neighborhood. It was there his beautiful and young mother had died of TB and from where he left for the orphanage with his brother. I looked at him and it became clear why he could not go. The hurt of the memory was still, after a war and forty years, too raw. I looked at him and said, “You don’t want to go because of your mother.” His eyes welled with tears.
To lose one so young and beautiful, to watch her body whither from disease that ravaged the poor in overcrowded urban tenements, was too painful. His Motherland was a sacred place of memory. So I would offer a picture of the woman I think is my Dad’s mother if I could find a way to download her image to this site. She is lovely with an open round face, full lips and in a dress that she has made with a round neck and homespun stitching. Constancia Dudas died in her early thirties, around 1927-28. She is buried in a grave on Copps Hill in the North End with a small stone and number on it, along with my Dad’s father who died seven years before. I went there anyway to retrace the holy way of my Dad and his Lithuanian parents. The Roman Catholic Church is still there, as is the welfare office where they received some help and so is the now much expanded Mass General Hospital. The people? They have been replaced by those who can afford the rents in the high rise apartments. Capernaum and the West End, they are both Holy Ground as is the ground on which you and I now stand. They are sanctified by our refusals to forget and to live into the outrage, the grief, the joy and a prayer of thanks that we have heard the stories and we still have the breath to tell them.
The Call: (Read John: 1:29-42 for a different take on the call of the disciples).
Calls have a lot to do with good recommendations. John the Baptist gives Jesus a Five-Star one. Today I don’t know if saying he was the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world would have as much traction. But as an entrance into the life of Jesus and the way of Christ, the “Come and See” seems to be the operative antiphon for the reading for this Sunday.
Those of you who are in congregations have wondered over the years how it is that this plays out when we invite folks to “Come and See” on a Sunday Morning. I had a clergy acquaintance who maintained that the foremost seat for evangelism in the church is the back pew. It’s to the back pew that the call is directed, to the wary, doubtful, angry and broken hearted. Of course most of the rest of us farther front are in the same boat, but we already know in a sense why we are here. We want to come and see and we hope that from year after year, Jesus will somehow show up, and we will be sent out for another week of engagement with the world.
The text says something also about competition. John is willing to give his disciples away. Let them go and see Jesus. You get to a point, I think, when you realize you’re not in a competition. All you want is for people to come and see, to open their eyes to the holy, to the love of God, to justice, to the light.
I know a corporate lawyer. He complains about how cut-throat it is in his business. After our discussion I listened to a broadcast about Baboons. If the chief baboon is to keep his place in the order of things, he has to continually fight off other males for dominance in the group. One day he will lose that position to another. He will either continue to plummet down the chain until he finally has to leave the troop and face probable death or he has to find a way to stay with the group. Those who were brutal in their times of leadership are the ones who are most badly treated once they lose their position. Those who made friends with both males and females found a way to stay connected and protected by the community.
My friend says that there are different ways to run an organization. There’s the bully who seems to show up in much of our corporate and public life. And there is the nice-guy. At least in the baboon society, nice guys finish first.
All we want really is for people to be opened to the light and love of God. We hope for them to live fully and compassionately. We work to make the institutions that serve them as responsive as they can be, and to make the church a place of welcome and homecoming and mission.
To my corporate lawyer friend I say, be a nice guy. Nice guys can be direct and still be compassionate. Nice guys can be wise, and still invite the wisdom and opinions of others. Nice guys can be threatened and still keep their feet on the ground.
If you are a nice guy or gal when time and fortune take way the various perks of position and power, you will still have friends and you will not be a bitter old man or woman.
For those of us in the Church, our model here is the Baptist, pointing the way to another, to what is coming, the light, love, pure and just heart of Jesus. We point to Him.
Epiphany 1, Year A, Matthew 3:13-17
They started to call me “Bob the Baptist” after the first fifty baptisms. By the time I left Stratford we had baptized around two hundred, each one a beloved child of God and marked as Christ’s own forever. The baptism of Jesus by John in the Jordan is a template for each baptism. At each Baptism we await the arrival of the dove and the voice that announces: “This is my beloved ‘child’ listen to him or her.” So thoroughly cleansed by the blessed waters, is there doubt that the veil between the earth and heaven has been parted? Is there any doubt that this child, this adult, contains the seeds of the holy?
Each one is divine,
Each one is human
Both are true
Both are good,
Material flesh, blood,
Bone and brain.
Of water and the spirit we
Are twice blessed.
And yet we share in
Blind to the light,
Born on a grey day
In a dark time
Visits the baptism
As a reminder of
The time and world
Into which this One
Hold on to the light
Let the baptism in you
Be of water and fire
Let your light so shine
Before creation that
They may see the love and
Good of you hands and heart.
And may the light in you
Never be overcome.
My own baptism took place in the midst of the war. News of my father’s death had just arrived by wire and by two soldiers at the front door. It was the winter of 1944 and along with the soon to be Bishop’s son, we were washed and blessed with oil. Godparents and relatives, only, watched the solemn ceremony on a grey day. I know the place and have some memory of the time. In that church we were marked as Christ’s own forever.
The baptized are marked men and women
With an oil that cannot be washed away
That claims us as God’s possession.
“We can run, but cannot hide”
God’s burning love will
Track and seek us.
It is dangerous to be baptized
Courage is required, conscious or un
For the holy will descend, call and
Begin to take her residence
Heart of the soul.
Year B. Matthew 2
The road to Bethlehem was barred.
Armed soldiers stood guard and
Stopped our progress.
Our guide skillfully negotiated
Another road into town.
The Church of the Nativity
Rises over the spot where the birth took place
One enters through a narrow and low door
Through which we had to bow
To gain entry.
Within, a stairway led down
Deep under the church,
To a small cave where the child was born
Excavated from ancient sand.
What had we expected to find?
Another stop on a pilgrimage?
To pray at the site
Where God became
The road into Bethlehem is barred.
Soldiers stand guard.
Whether to block the way
Or to protect us from harm is a mystery.
Can stop the birth
That kicks and turns
Ready to come.
With a good guide we can
Find another way
To the holy child.
Whose first breath is
A cry to be suckled
And to be held
Close and warm.
And to hear the sweet coo
Of His mother’s voice.
I have been struck over the last ten or so years with the image of holding the Christ in my arms. It is for me such a powerful image of the invitation to the life of prayer and the spirit. And to hold the child Christ as we would our own child or the beloved infant of a friend of a grandchild would invite one into the most intimate vulnerability. Epiphany invites us into a whole range of meditations on the journey to the child Christ, to travel with the wise ones, to wonder what obstacles we encounter on the way and to wonder what gifts we bring to the child we hold now in our arms. Of course there is always the issue of whether Mary and Joseph will give the child over to the arms of a stranger. And still that in itself is worth a meditation.
The point, I suspect, of the poem is that the road to birth encounters obstacles. The obstacles that try to block the way and the ones that try to kill any risk by over protection. The infant child needs maximum protection. It is the kind of fierce protection one finds in almost any creature we know. We see it over and over again in the most valiant moments: when teachers in Sandy Hook protected their children from the gun and a student confronted a shooter in her school in Colorado. It risks everything to protect and defend the life that needs to remain safe until it is ready. It is also the great sorrow of the ones who are ultimately unable to protect them from the hurt of life. Neither justice nor revenge can compensate for the sometimes trauma of the loss of innocence.
And yet for the child to grow he or she needs to find both another way into Bethlehem if the road is blocked and needs to find the freedom to take some risks, make mistakes, and be given the confidence that one can pick oneself up, learn and grow in wisdom.
I have been thinking that the three elements of gold, myrrh, and frankincense hold some meaning for the journey to the child. Gold invites us to ask what shall we do with the wealth we have been given, both our money, possessions, and also our gifts, our talents. It’s important to experience the abundance in and around us. How shall we use them to bless ourselves and bless the creation? Myrrh is used for burial. It invites us to ask with Mary Oliver, “What will you do with your one precious life?” And Frankincense is for beauty. How will we both find and seek beauty and how will we make ourselves a thing of inner and outer beauty for God and for the other? How may we be blessed and be a blessing?
I like to live with the questions as well as the answers. These and many other questions arise when we quietly hold the child of God in our arms. It may be that our understanding of this day will be more enhanced by the questions than the answers. I invite you, as you hold the Child of God in your loving, hurt or confused arms, to ask these questions. It will help to begin a new and holy year.
For now carry the carol ”In the Deep Midwinter”* with you as you travel these short dark days of winter, to use as a meditation on your “one precious life”. Blessing to you and to all creatures.
• Last verse:
• “What shall I give Him, poor as I am?
• If I were a shepherd, I would give a lamb
• If I were a wise man, I would do my part.
• What shall I give Him?
• Give my heart.”
Epiphany 2014, Year A. Matthew 2