In May of this year I sat in a webinar on climate emergency organized by Episcopal clergy and lay leaders. I listened to Dr. Bette Hecox-Lea, an Episcopalian and marine biologist, speak words of unvarnished truth about how biosphere degradation has activated tipping points that, if left on course, will result in a massive extinction event. On behalf of the scientific community, she said plainly, “We do not know what will come after these points have tipped permanently, other than that the earth will become uninhabitable.” I wept tears of shocked but sober recognition as I absorbed information I have heard before, but this time, truly listened.[i]
Five months earlier, in January, I had brought my weight of grief and hope for the world to the silent winter woods at Emery House. I had left screens and books and words and even food behind me for a time. I found a lone hemlock tree, and dug a clearing in the snow beneath it until I could see and touch the body of the earth. I nestled my weary body against the cold, dark, moist soil and gazed up at the green branches sheltering me. I prayed as though my life and all life depended upon it. Time seemed to stop as I lay there, and as the drops of snow-melt mingled with my tears of gratitude, something happened. My flesh knew the earth from which it had come, and to which it would return; my bones knew that death would be only a door into the Creator’s heart; and my heart knew that while I am alive I am bound by Christ to love him in and through this Creation, from which we are not separate.
St. Peter & St. Paul, Apostles
St. Peter and St. Paul, whom we celebrate today, shared several things.
Both men had utterly life-changing experiences of the crucified-and-risen Jesus. This Jesus spoke to both men individually and personally. Each received a calling that only Peter and only Paul could fulfill.
Both men were tasked with stewarding the ancient traditions of their ancestors and faithfully making meaning of that stream of wisdom while at the same time living from the heart of a new awareness: that their Lord and Messiah had, in their experience, radically changed the course of that history. This new awareness was subject to misunderstanding and rejection; and so were they.
Both men were asked, repeatedly, to adapt to circumstances they could never have imagined; to adopt a new perception of how God communicated with God’s people; and to embody a new paradigm for gathering and nourishing the community of God. The limitless boundaries of this community – nothing less than the Body of Christ — took them on an odyssey far from home, spiritually and geographically.
Monks pray often. But as we learn many times over, quantity or frequency in themselves don’t equal quality or depth. Neither, as Jesus points out here, do length or verbal sophistication in themselves equal substance in the realm of prayer. Even when the phrases are full of meaning, such as those drawn directly from Scripture, it is possible to come to them with absence of mind or heart, and miss the meaning because something in us is missing.
The Christians at Corinth seemed to go weak in the knees for verbal sophistication. In this slightly odd snippet from Paul’s second letter to the church at Corinth, I hear Paul’s sense of humor and his deep sense of irony. The Corinthians are distractible; they are flirtatious with other teachings, other teachers, and other “gospels” with finer phrases and finer reputations than Paul’s gospel, which can be a bit of a downer. Length and sophistication were these teachers’ specialty: in public prayer, in preaching, and in their long and impressive resumes. Paul was capable of great rhetorical sophistication himself, but the gospel he stewards is, first and foremost, treasure in a clay jar, “so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us” (2 Cor. 4:7). Rather than a super-apostle– a term heavy with irony – Paul is a kind of sub–apostle. He’s a messenger on a distinctly downward trajectory, whose “resume” includes only the most ridiculous, painful, and shameful things he has endured for the sake of the gospel. Rather than marrying up in the world, spiritually speaking, Paul has married down… and down and down. He has wedded himself to a Bridegroom Messiah who makes him look like a loser. And that is his greatest boast.
Note: This is the third and final part of a sermon preached by three Brothers: Jack Crowley, n/SSJE; Sean Glenn, SSJE; and Keith Nelson, SSJE.
I want to circle back to that obscure but evocative passage in John’s first Epistle:
The Spirit is the one that testifies, for the Spirit is the truth. There are three that testify: the Spirit and the water and the blood, and these three agree.
The testimony is one, as the Spirit is one, but it seems the encountering of it is (at least) three-fold: in the baptism we share; in the costly self-offering we must each make; and in the speaking of the Spirit of Truth on the tongue of each believer in living witness.
Three preachers do not regularly step up to this ambo on a single occasion, but the fact that today we are three merely underscores something essential about this life: the mutuality of our common witness and the complementarity of our testimony to the Truth. We are a community of preachers because we need each other’s help to lay hold of and live in the Truth. As the nucleus of a wider fellowship we are “sustained by many energies of mutual service”: the Truth proclaimed from many mouths, moving in many hearts, and lived in many lives.
We know that the familiar adage ends with the cheery adjective “fonder.” To feel the absence of someone we cherish does often deepen our love the longer we are apart. But absence may also make the heart grow numb or inert, grief-stricken or depressed, baffled or enraged. Absence can make the heart grow hopeless.
When I focus instead on the word grow, something shifts. The trajectory of our growth in God is through and beyond this kaleidoscope.
If the feeling of absence in our lives has anything to do with the purposes of God, growth will be its gift, but not in a way we can predict or even recognize. This has been the experience of many saints, whose patient endurance through the night of God’s felt absence has catalyzed their growth, not in fondness but in holiness. As in any relationship of true love, growth in Christ gives rise to many feelings. But it does not depend upon those feelings, and the presence of feelings we consider encouraging or consoling is not in itself a sign of growth, any more than their absence is a sign of stasis. Sometimes the opposite is true! Growth in God strengthens us both to treasure the joy of Christ’s felt presence, and to trust the slow, hidden growth called forth when we feel God is absent. This depth of trust is deeply challenging.
The visitation of Mary to Elizabeth always captures my praying imagination.
I see an old, tough woman suffused with the giddy joy of a young girl, the kind that visits mothers, grandmothers, and aunts at wedding receptions. In squeals of laughter, flushed cheeks and bare feet on the dance floor, a youthful radiance gleams from the young at heart.
And I see a young girl, centered, purposeful, and wise beyond her years, with a confidence and vision that are usually the gifts of chronological maturity. She declares words of passion and purpose about the true order of things in a voice that does not quiver. It is a strange combination of purity and precociousness, the kind that we glimpse in the old souls of certain children.
The Spirit touches the first with a buoyant exuberance and a cry of joy that begins deep in the belly. The Spirit touches the second with anchored assurance and a song that echoes down the generations.
When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them because they were harassed and helpless, like…
Sheep without a shepherd.
Students without a teacher,
Children without a parent,
Eggs without a brooding mother,
Warriors without a commander,
Citizens without a leader,
Treasure without a guardian,
Inheritance without an heir.
Characters without an author,
My first encounter with a true mountain range occurred at age sixteen. These mountains were the Austrian Alps, so it was quite the introduction. The summer moon was full, and their peaks were crowned with gleaming snow. Tears of pure wonder streamed down my face. God’s power was written in such large figures and I was so small, but in that smallness I felt significant. I fell to my knees.
My presence in that Austrian valley on that summer night was a wonder in itself. Months before, my high school chamber choir director had announced plans for the choir to go on tour to Austria, Germany, and the Czech Republic. The price of the trip was unaffordable for me; paying my school tuition already entailed sacrifice for my parents. I took this news in stride, though as the school year progressed, it became clear that I was the only student in the thirty-member choir who would not be going, and my sense of belonging felt fragile. One morning, a telegram (of all things!) arrived at our front door with a cryptic, unsigned message. Someone wanted to pay my way, on the condition that they remain anonymous. The courier awaited my reply. I accepted humbly and gratefully… but the identity of this benevolent stranger continued to puzzle me for weeks. I suspected anyone and everyone. Everything took on the quality of a gift: a gift I did not earn and no longer took for granted. I had been honored by the generosity of a king in disguise.
There is a common physiological phenomenon that occurs to many people as their bodies cross the threshold from a waking state into deep sleep. An involuntary twitch of the muscles, called a hypnic jerk, wrenches the body awake. This is often preceded by a distinct sensation of falling that can be quite horrifying. Scientists don’t really understand it. It may be that our daytime motor control is exerting a last burst of effort for dominance as our muscles enter full relaxation on the cusp of dreaming. It may even be an evolutionary echo: our brain mistakes this necessary muscle relaxation for the experience of falling out of a tree, and sends a sudden flash of warning to the body. Whatever the cause, there is something deep, something primal in us, that resists relinquishing control as we approach the mysterious, nightly death of sleep.
In tonight’s passage from Acts, we hear about a boy named Eutychus and an unexpected fall. Eutychus falls asleep and falls to his death from a third-floor window. This tragic accident interrupts the bigger story with a profusion of small details. It happened “On the first day of the week, when we met to break bread,” Luke writes. The furniture is different, but we have been here before. Paul breaks open the word in an upper room in Troas, just as Jesus did in Jerusalem on the night before he died, and again after his Resurrection. Paul’s destination, too, is Jerusalem. As the gravity of his self-offering becomes clear, the power of the Lord’s resurrection flashes forth within and around him.
I had no formal religious upbringing before the age of nine, when my family moved from a little suburb in southern New Jersey to a suburb of Birmingham, Alabama. It was a huge cultural shift – and culture shock – for all of us, from minor things (like learning I had an accent) to one big thing: we began to go to church for the first time. I had grown up on a rich diet of J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Greek and Roman mythology – great story traditions that informed my play as a child. When I encountered the Bible and the story of Jesus for the first time, I took to it like a fish to water, in part I think because of the groundwork that had already been laid in my heart and psyche by those stories. The difference, of course, was that this particular hero was God, who desired a relationship of love with me, personally, and that there was a whole community of people living out this great Story, capital S. Learning that was hugely horizon opening and ground shaking for me. I was baptized when I was ten.