One of the most memorable family Christmas presents when I was growing up was that marvel of home entertainment called ‘the VCR.’ After heeding some advice from the clerk at the store about this new technology and strange words like “Beta” and “VHS” my parents purchased a video membership and our first VCR. This machine included cutting edge technology like a remote control that had a long wire that stretched a few feet and plugged into the front so you wouldn’t have to get up from your seat to fast forward or rewind. And on that Christmas Eve in the mid-1980’s by the light of the Christmas tree and a bowl full of popcorn we all sat down and watched the first of about 6 movies we had rented.
Recently I was reminded of the story of John Newton, the 18th century London-born seaman who authored the extremely-popular Christian hymn, “Amazing Grace.” Newton was captain of a ship that plied in the slave trade, but in 1748 he underwent a dramatic conversion. His conversion took place at sea, in the midst of a raging storm, when he cried to the Lord for mercy and the ship was delivered. As he reflected on what had happened, Newton began to believe that God had addressed him through the storm and that grace had been at work in him. Not long after, he penned the words to the well-known hymn, “Amazing Grace,” in which he acknowledged that God’s grace had rescued him when he was lost, and given him sight when he was blind. Following his conversion, Newton left the slave trade, became an Anglican minister, and advocated for the abolition of slavery.
I won’t ask for a show of hands this morning, but I’m wondering how many of us know a person or a family who is living below the poverty line. The U.S. Census Bureau defines that as a single person who makes less than $11,491 per year, or a family of four that earns less than $23,018 annually. In 2010, the Census Bureau tells us, over 15% of the people in the United States were below the poverty line (15.3%). The percentage for children was even higher: 21.6% of children living in the United States in 2010 were living below the poverty line – that’s one in every five children in one of the wealthiest nations on earth. If you know a person or persons who live with this kind of poverty, I’d like you to picture them and keep them in mind for the next few minutes.
Catalina Island is 22 miles off the coast of Los Angeles. A Christian camp there, Campus by the Sea, is one of my very favorite places which I grew up visiting frequently. After seminary, I spent over a year living there on the beach in the small, isolated staff community, who are caretakers of a sacred space and hosts to many coming for spiritual retreat. Camp nurtured my gifts for hospitality and service, valuing simplicity and honoring God in mundane work, preparing me for monastic life.
During my year on staff, there was a major wildfire on Catalina. It spread to ridges surrounding our camp causing us to quickly evacuate our guests and ourselves by boat to Catalina’s town. We finally left the island late that night with the eery sight of flames amid the darkness near camp. We huddled together in prayer and song, fearing the loss of our sacred place and home.
There are times when the path to which God calls us leads us into trouble or difficulty. Being faithful to that path, being obedient to that call, can prove to be very costly. We have only to recall Christ’s agony in Gethsemane to know that this was true for Jesus, and he assures us that it will also be true for many of those who choose to embrace and follow him on the Way.
I have always loved the poetry of George Herbert. When I was eighteen I was given a copy of The Metaphysical Poets, a Penguin paperback, with its fine introduction by the eminent scholar Dame Helen Gardner. I still have the book, well thumbed and rather worse for wear, but a testimony to those faithful companions, Herbert, Donne, Marvell, and Vaughan, who have traveled with me over the years.
But it is to my fellow Welshman, George Herbert, that I return again and again. I well remember turning the pages of that book and there, on page 121, I saw “Easter Wings.” You can’t miss it because of its shape. It actually looks like what the poet is trying to describe. In the early editions, the lines were printed vertically, to represent the shape of wings on the page. To get this effect, try turning this page ninety degrees, half close your eyes, and there are two birds flying upward with outstretched wings!
poem, adopted from the ancient Greeks, in which the shape mirrors the theme: and what more glorious theme than Easter! Each of the two stanzas represents first a dying or a falling, and then a rising pattern, which is the theme of the Easter story. The top half of each stanza focuses on the problem caused by human sin, and the bottom half reflects the hope made possible by the resurrection of Jesus from the dead.
Lord, Who createdst man in wealth and store,
Though foolishly he lost the same,
Decaying more and more,
Till he became
With Thee O let me rise,
As larks, harmoniously,
And sing this day Thy victories:
Then shall the fall further the flight in me.
My tender age in sorrow did beginne;
And still with sicknesses and shame
Thou didst so punish sinne,
That I became
Let me combine,
And feel this day Thy victorie;
For, if I imp my wing on Thine,
Affliction shall advance the flight in me.
Helen Gardner wrote that “the quintessence or soul of a metaphysical poem is the vivid imagining of a moment of experience.” I wonder what “moment of experience” caused Herbert to write this personal and moving prayer to God. Herbert lived for three years as rector of the tiny village of Bemerton, just across the water meadows from Salisbury cathedral, the cathedral where I was ordained. I like to imagine him walking out one crisp Easter morning, summoned by the bells of the cathedral, raising his eyes to that great spire reaching into the heavens, and seeing countless birds swooping and gliding and soaring in delight. With his heart filled with joy, it seems that in this poem he too longs to rise up like those birds, and take flight with the risen Christ.
The first stanza speaks of how we were created by God and given every good thing: “Lord, Who createdst man in wealth and store.” But through the fall of man all these good things were lost and decayed, “‘Till he became Most poore.” The lines of the stanza mirror this loss by “decaying” in length.
But there is hope, and in the rising part of the stanza, Herbert writes lyrically of his desire to rise with Christ: “With Thee O let me rise, As larks, harmoniously, and sing this day Thy victories.” In the last line, the alliteration of “Then shall the fall further the flight in me” expresses the paradox that if humankind had not fallen, then we would never have had the wonderful gift of the coming of Christ to redeem us. This paradox is often called the felix culpa or the “happy fault,” words which are traditionally sung at the Exsultet on Easter morning, printed on page 13 of this Cowley.
The second stanza is even more personal and autobiographical. He remembers with sorrow and shame some of his earlier life, perhaps something of what he describes so painfully in his poem “Affliction.” It was an experience which meant, “That I became Most thinne.”
But all is redeemed in the glorious rising part of this second stanza. He prays that his earlier suffering may help him fly even higher, because of the “victorie” of Christ over sin and death at Easter. “For if I imp my wing on Thine, Affliction shall advance the flight in me.” To “imp” is a technical term taken from falconry, meaning to graft feathers onto a damaged wing to restore a bird’s power of flight. Herbert is asking that his damaged wing be repaired by grafting it onto Christ’s, and that together they may rise and soar up to eternal life. There is such a sense of soaring joy here, and perhaps Herbert had in mind the passage from Isaiah 40: “Those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.”
This is a poem which has delighted me for many years, with its joyful and exuberant celebration of Easter, and I shall always be grateful for the companionship of George Herbert, parish priest, poet, and in the words of his fellow writer Henry Vaughan, “a most glorious saint and seer.
This cope I’m wearing today has great sentimental value: it was hand crafted as an ordination gift from my parents. As it happens, the process leading up to my ordination was rather harrowing, so this festal garment is a reminder that, in the end, things work out. Ultimately. As Julian of Norwich put it, “all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be very well”. At least ultimately.
Today Jesus gives Peter and James and John a preview of “ultimately”. A few days earlier he had told them that the Son of Man was to undergo great sufferings, rejection, death, and, after three days, be raised from the dead. The vision of transfiguration on the mountain was a kind of preview of resurrection. Perhaps because he knew the experience would be so harrowing he wanted the disciples to see for themselves how it was going to turn out in the end. All would be well—at least on the other side of the cross.
Sometimes the fear is personal: Am I wealthy enough, attractive enough, successful enough, clever enough, good enough? Do others admire me, approve of me, speak well of me? Will my project succeed? Will my marriage last? Will my finances hold out? Will my children flourish? Will my health continue?
Sometimes the fear is communal or even global: Will the world withstand this economic crisis? Will global warming lead to environmental disaster? Will nuclear weapons destroy us? Will our craving for wealth and power undo us? Will our cities ever be safe? Will war continue to claim our young men and women? Will China surpass us? Will Al Queda attack us? Will Iran and North Korea be contained? Will peace ever come to the Middle East?
Have you heard the news? The papers are full of it. They’ve been full of it every day in 2010. And it’s mostly been bad news. The terrible sufferings in Haiti after the January earthquake, and then the hurricane: the homelessness, the cholera. And the seemingly endless cycle of violence, of suicide bombings – in Iraq, Afghanistan, Palestine. The plight of the Palestinian people and all who face injustice in the Holy Land. The frightening escalations of war-like rhetoric, and threat of a nuclear attack in Korea. And then this year, the appalling financial crisis , with so many suffering anxiety and loss – the loss of jobs, the loss of homes through mortgage foreclosure. And then anxiety about our nation which seems so polarized between blue and red states, between wealthy and poor. More and more bad news.
Such a diet of bad news, day after day, can profoundly affect the way that we see our own lives. We can look back over 2010 and pick out the bad news – for ourselves, our families, our work, our homes.
Genesis 28: 10 – 22
Psalm 63: 1 – 8
John 1: 43 – 51
Several years ago I had the privilege of spending some days on Prince Edward Island, Canada’s smallest province. It was my first, but I hope not my last visit there. I was there to lead the clergy retreat for the Diocese of Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island during the week and then to preach on the Sunday in Summerside, on the south shore of the Island. Between the retreat and the preaching engagement I had a couple of days to see a little bit of the Island. It was an odd experience for someone who had grown up on the wide open expanses of the Saskatchewan prairie and then lived for a number of years in Ontario where it takes several days to drive from one end of Ontario to the other, to be able to drive from one end the province to the other and still be back at my hotel in time for an early supper, my book and bed.
If you know anything about Prince Edward Island, you’ll know that it is famous for three things: the redness of its soil, potatoes and Anne of Green Gables.