Today, as I write this, is Trinity Sunday 2020, but my imagination this morning is not caught up by the Lectionary gospel lesson of the day, the last mountain-top experience of the Eleven when, just before his Ascension, Jesus gives them the Great Commission. Rather, my mind is taken to another mountain-top story, the one New Testament story Episcopalians can count on hearing twice each year at celebrations of the Holy Eucharist, that of the Transfiguration of Jesus. It is heard on the Feast of the Transfiguration, August 6, when Luke’s version is read at the mass:
Jesus took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray. And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly they saw two men, Moses and Elijah, talking to him. They appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem. Now Peter and his companions were weighed down with sleep; but since they had stayed awake, they saw his glory and the two men who stood with him. Just as they were leaving him, Peter said to Jesus, “Master, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah” — not knowing what he said. While he was saying this, a cloud came and overshadowed them; and they were terrified as they entered the cloud. Then from the cloud came a voice that said, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” When the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone. And they kept silent and in those days told no one any of the things they had seen.
It is also always heard on the Last Sunday after Epiphany when, depending on the Lectionary year, it may be Luke’s story or the essentially similar versions from Matthew or Mark.
Today marks the beginning of the season we call “Lent,” an old English word which refers to the springtime lengthening of the days. What is this season all about, these forty days (not counting Sundays) during which we are to be, in some way, doing what a hymn attributed to St. Gregory the Great says: “Keep[ing] vigil with our heavenly lord in his temptation and his fast?”
A few years ago, Dr. Jonn Sentamu, the current Archbishop of York, described Lent as a time for seeking and getting to know God better. Similarly, an essay about Lent in an issue of the National Catholic Register was titled “A Season for Seeking.” I’m not sure I buy that, however. As the Roman Franciscan author Richard Rohr says, “We cannot attain the presence of God because we’re already in the presence of God. What’s absent is awareness.” Lent is not so much a time for seeking God, who is always there, as it is for becoming aware of God.
And the interesting thing is that we are encouraged to become aware of God by becoming more aware of ourselves. Yes, Jesus does say to give with one hand not letting the other know what’s happening, but this seems more an instruction to follow the Deuteronomic command to “open your hand [to one in need] … to give liberally and be ungrudging when you do so” rather than a direction to act without self-awareness.
When I was a kid growing up first in southern Nevada and then in southern California, the weeks leading up to Christmas (we weren’t church members so we didn’t call them “Advent”) were always the same. They followed a pattern set by my mother. We bought a tree and decorated it; we set up a model electric train around it. We bought and wrapped packages and put them under the tree, making tunnels for that toy train. We went to the Christmas light shows in nearby parks and drove through the neighborhoods that went all out for cooperative, or sometimes competitive, outdoor displays. My mother would make several batches of bourbon balls (those confections made of crushed vanilla wafers and booze) and give them to friends and co-workers. Christmas Eve we would watch one or more Christmas movies on TV, and early Christmas morning we would open our packages . . . carefully so that my mother could save the wrapping paper. Then all day would be spent cooking and watching TV and playing bridge. After the big Christmas dinner, my step-father and I would do the clean up, my brother and my uncle would watch TV . . . and my mother would sneak off to her room and cry. You see . . . no matter how carefully we prepared, no matter how strictly we adhered to Mom’s pattern, something always went wrong. We never got it right; Christmas never turned out the way my mother wanted it to be.
Some years later, I read the work of the Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai and I understood what our family problem was.
While making a presentation at a conference about teaching English as a second language, an expert in the field remarked that one of the difficulties is that there are many instances in English when a double-negative renders positive meaning and this is confusing for non-English speakers. “It’s fortunate,” she said, “there’s no way in English that a double positive can convey negative meaning.”
From the back of the room a voice spoke up, “Yeah, right.”
Now when that story is written, the sarcasm of that double positive giving negative meaning is hard to indicate; in fact, it is impossible. And yet it will probably be understood by a native speaker. For the non-English speaker, however, discerning the sarcasm and humor is difficult. Inflection and tone of voice can and do drastically alter meaning and understanding.
This is a special Sunday for me. Friday marked the 28th anniversary of my ordination as a priest in the Episcopal Church. It was on Sunday, June 23, 1991, that I celebrated my first mass. So I am grateful to you and to Fr. George for the privilege of an altar at which to celebrate the Holy Mysteries and a pulpit from which to preach the gospel on this, my anniversary Sunday.
Now that I am retired, I am filling part of my time studying Irish. In the world of Irish studies, I am what is known as a foghlaimeoir, which is to say “an Irish learner.” The truth is that I have been a foghlaimeoir for over eleven years, but I have not yet progressed to the level of Gaeilgeoir, that is, “an Irish speaker.” Studying Irish is one of the most difficult things I’ve ever done; it is both fascinating and maddening, and I think that among the reasons for that are the cultural assumptions which underly the language.
I retired from active parish ministry as a priest in the Episcopal Church in December 2018 after nearly 29 years in holy orders, more than half that time as rector of one parish. Since then, my wife and I have visited several Episcopal congregations in this and other dioceses on Sunday mornings, not as supply clergy and spouse but simply as visiting worshipers.
In nearly every case, we have been greeted by friendly people, found worship that is lively and engaging, enjoyed sermons that are masterfully crafted and well preached by erudite clergy, and left feeling that we have encountered a loving God in a vibrant community. Oh to be sure, we have been able to find minor aspects to criticize, but these are merely the quibblings of professional church geeks; sharing them is how we amuse ourselves on the drive home. In the main, though, we have been very impressed at how well the Episcopal Church follows the first great commandment: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.”
I’m not preaching this week, but if I were . . .
I often read poetry as part of, and frequently as a substitute for, a homily. This is especially true on “high holy days” when the liturgy and the lessons of the lectionary speak so eloquently that the attempt at exegesis seems at best irrelevant and at worst intrusive, e.g., Good Friday or Palm Sunday. On such days, in such liturgies and with such lessons, the poets seem to get and to give the message so much better than I can.
There are two poems that I’ve used on Palm Sunday which look at the story focusing on or speaking through one of the often-ignored characters, the donkey which carried Christ into the city of Jerusalem. One is Mary Oliver’s The Poet Thinks about the Donkey in which the poet expresses her hopes for the animal. The other is G.K. Chesterton’s The Donkey in which the animal speaks for itself.
Lenten Journal, Day 8
Today, I shaved.
Now, most of the time, that’s not big deal. Men shave every day so one’s reaction to a 67-year-old man saying “I shaved” probably should be “So what?” However, the past several weeks trimming my beard and shaving have not been a regular part of my life.
As I have recovered from total knee arthroplasty, which is to say the replacement of parts of my left knee with bits and pieces of titanium and plastic, standing at the bathroom sink either long enough or steadily enough to use a sharp and pointy pair of scissors to trim my beard and a razor to shave my neck has simply not been possible. But after two months of recovery including several coached sessions of physical therapy and daily workouts on my own, today was the day to take the time to do both of those things … and not just that, but also to drive to my neighborhood barber and have my head shaved with a straight razor! I’ve not been this “cleaned up” since Christmas!
A wandering Aramean was my ancestor; he went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien, few in number, and there he became a great nation, mighty and populous. – Deuteronomy 26:5
I’m not preaching on the First Sunday of Lent, but if I was . . . I might preach about Lenten community.
“What?” some will ask. “The gospel lesson is about Jesus going off into the desert to be alone and to fast for forty days! Shouldn’t we be preaching about solitude and sacrifice and privation and that sort of thing? You know, Lenten discipline?”
Well, sure, you can do that. I’ll bet you’ve done that every year. I’ll bet our congregations have heard dozens, hundreds of Lenten discipline sermons. They can take another one.
However, as I read the gospel lesson again, it occurred to me that Satan’s temptations of Jesus are all the temptations of solitude: the self-sufficiency of miraculously producing bread without any other assistance – to which Jesus answers, “One does not live alone;” the loneliness of rulership – to which Jesus answers, “Worship and service,” an answer implying relationship and community; the selfishness of self-destruction – to which Jesus simply answers “No.”
They shall live secure, for now he shall be great to the ends of the earth. – Micah 5:4b
If you would enter
into the wilderness,
do not begin
without a blessing.
Do not leave
who you are:
named by the One
who has traveled this path
Do not go
without letting it echo
in your ears,
and if you find
it is hard
to let it into your heart,
do not despair.
That is what
this journey is for.
I cannot promise
this blessing will free you
from the scorching
or the fall
of the night.
But I can tell you
that on this path
there will be help.
I can tell you
that on this way
there will be rest.
I can tell you
that you will know
the strange graces
that come to our aid
only on a road
such as this,
that fly to meet us
that come alongside us
for no other cause
than to lean themselves
toward our ear
and with their
whisper our name:
That is the poem Beloved Is Where We Begin by Jan Richardson from her collection of verse entitled Circle of Grace. It is a poem for Lent, but it also speaks to us of the Advent promise we hear in the prophecy of Micah, “They shall live secure, for now he shall be great to the ends of the earth.” On the Christian journey, as poet Richardson writes, wherever it may take us, there will be help; there will be the security promised by Micah.