A book entitled Stories for the Heart was published a few years ago by inspirational speaker Alice Gray. It is a compilation of what Gray calls “stories to encourage your soul;” one of them is the following story, whose original author she says is unknown. It may not be true, but I (for one) hope it is:
It was a few weeks before Christmas 1917. The beautiful snowy landscapes of Europe were blackened by war. The trenches on one side held the Germans and on the other side the trenches were filled with Americans. It was World War I. The exchange of gunshots was intense. Separating them was a very narrow strip of no-man’s land. A young German soldier attempting to cross that no-man’s land had been shot and had become entangled in the barbed wire. He cried out in anguish, then in pain he continued to whimper.
A few years ago, at my former parish, we had a Sunday school presentation in which each of the kids was to recite a verse of Scripture. On little guy came up and just stood there, shuffling his feet and looking very uncomfortable; he just couldn’t remember his line… His mother was in the front row to prompt him. She gestured and formed the words silently with her lips, but it did not help. Her son’s memory was blank. Finally, she leaned forward and whispered the cue, “I am the light of the world.” The child beamed and with great feeling and a loud clear voice said, “My mother is the light of the world.”
Today, we have the happy coincidence of celebrating Mother’s Day and contemplating another of Jesus famous “I am” statements: “I am the good shepherd.” I believe that this coincidence can help us to understand this famous metaphor. Last Monday was the feast of Julian of Norwich, the early 15th Century mystic who was given, and recorded, a series of “divine shewings.” In her text, The Revelations of Divine Love, published in modern translation under the title Showings, she wrote this:
The human mother will suckle her child with her own milk, but our beloved Mother, Jesus, feeds us with himself, and with most tender courtesy, does it by means of the Blessed Sacrament, the precious food of all true life.
A clergy person of my acquaintance, following Julian’s vision of Jesus as our “beloved mother,” recast today’s Gospel lesson in terms of motherhood, rather than shepherding.
This sermon was first preached on Easter Sunday, 2001, at St. Francis of Assisi in the Pines Episcopal Church, Stilwell, Kansas, where I was rector from July 1993 to June 2003. I had thought it lost when that parish abandoned its internet domain after I left that position. However, at the urging of a friend, I searched for it on the Internet Archive’s “wayback machine,” and was surprised to find it. I have updated some of the references and corrected some mistakes to publish it here. I have always thought it a pretty good sermon, and I guess others have thought so, too: in the course of researching sources to update the footnotes, I found that a rather large chunk of it had been reproduced in full, without attribution, as the pastor’s 2019 Easter letter in the newsletter of a Roman Catholic parish in Scotland.[A] (As my fellow Anglican cleric Charles Caleb Cotton wrote in 1824 – and Oscar Wilde later quoted and expanded – “Imitation is the sincerest [form] of flattery.”[B])
Easter is a joke. Amen.
(The Preacher steps out of the pulpit, perhaps even returns to his chair, then returns to the pulpit.)
OK … I guess I should explain that. What is a “joke”? Princeton University’s WordNet Dictionary says, in one of its definitions, that a joke is an “activity characterized by good humor.” Can you think of a better way to characterize the resurrection of Jesus than as an “activity characterized by good humor”? The Resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth was God’s activity of the highest and best humor!
I wrote in our newsletter, The Canticle, that the Sunday we call “Easter” is really not a separate feast day; it is the third part of a three-day celebration that begins at sundown on the previous Thursday, the day we call “Maundy.” This three-day celebration is called by an ancient Latin name, “the Triduum.” The Triduum is a single celebration in three acts. We have arrived at Act Three in the drama of redemption.
With churches suspending public worship out of concern for the contagion of Covid-19, the noval coronavirus, we Episcopalians (and many others) are prevented from receiving Holy Communion. An ancient practice of the Church in such circumstances, for there have always been those who, for whatever reason, are unable to take the Sacrament, is to make an act of “spiritual communion.”
Spiritual communion was defined by St. Thomas Aquinas as “an ardent desire to receive Jesus in the Holy Sacrament and a loving embrace as though we had already received Him.” This is a lovely way to unite oneself to God through prayer, expressing to God one’s desire to be united with Christ when we are unable to do so through reception of Holy Communion.
The Roman Catholic saint, Alphonsus Liguori, taught a four-step method of of making a spiritual communion.
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.
A Buddhist tells this story:
Once upon a time, there was a tavern owner in Mumbai. He had a hard-working bartender, who was always trying to be helpful by inventing new ways of doing things. One hot day, the tavern owner wanted to go to the beach. So he left the bartender in charge while he was gone. The bartender had noticed that many customers ate a little salt after drinking their liquor. He didn’t know why, but not wishing to show his ignorance, he never asked. He thought it might be that the liquor needed salt to taste good, and he wondered why taverns didn’t just add salt to their liquor. He decided that if he did so, the business would make much higher profits, and the tavern owner would be very pleased. So he added salt to all the liquor, not knowing that the actual reason the customers ate the salt was to chase away the aftertaste of the liquor. To his surprise, when the customers came to the tavern and drank the salty booze, they immediately spit it out; they left and went to a different bar. When the owner returned from his day at the beach, he found his tavern empty, and all his liquor ruined.
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.
Two things happened last Saturday.
Early in the day I got into an internet discussion (in a Facebook comment thread) with a friend about the “distinctives” of the Episcopal Church and (as the context broadened) Anglicanism in general. It started as a joke when I made a snarky comment that what sets us apart from other parts of the Christian world is that we are a “place” where people can argue about such important things as candles on the altar or processional crosses or the theology of bread with vile, soul-crushing vehemence and still claim to be loving brothers and sisters. My friend responded, I answered, and as things progressed I realized he was being serious while I was trying to be sarcastic. I shifted gears and we ended up agreeing that the Anglican distinctive is difficult to put into words, it almost defies definition.
And, yet, there is something! We had both commented during the give-and-take that there is a je-ne-sais-quoi about our tradition that we miss when attending worship in another church , that if the Episcopal Church did not exist we would have to invent it.
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.”