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.
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.
“In the Name of God the Broken-Hearted. Amen.”
In January of 1991, I was a student at Church Divinity School of the Pacific, where there is a tradition of Thursday night community eucharists followed by dinner together in the seminary refectory. On the evening of Thursday, January 17, the Rev. Dr. John Kater, professor of ministry theory and practice, was our preacher and he began his sermon with the invocation I have just offered. You see, that was the day “Operation Desert Shield” became “Operation Desert Storm,” and we had all been glued to the TV sets in the common room, the dormitory lounges, or our apartments watching as the US Air Force began a bombardment of Baghdad that was to last for weeks and, eventually, lead into nearly three decades of war in the Persian Gulf region.
There was another American bombing of Baghdad just a few days ago in which the military leader of Iran, Qassem Soleimani, was killed. If the news reports are correct, his death may trigger more armed conflict in the region. So this weekend, as we read in our newspapers about the Iranian general’s death and tonight consider the visit of a group of Iranian scientists to Israel, it seemed good to repeat that invocation tonight.
In the beginning, God said . . . and there is creation. In the beginning was the Word, and the Word became flesh . . . and there is salvation. When we cry “Abba! Father!” it is not us but the Spirit who speaks through us . . . and there is sanctification. At the core of our faith is communication and personal relationship, and how we express that is vitally important. It is more than an intellectual enterprise. Choosing, using, hearing, reading, interpreting, and translating our words and those of scripture is a spiritual and existential exercise, as well. To demonstrate this, I have brought a prop to use this morning: this. [Bottle of Mountain Dew]
What is this? I mean, generically what is this beverage called? You might call it “pop” or “soda” or (despite the fact that it is not a cola and not a product of the Coca-Cola Company) if you were from some parts of the American South you might call it a “coke.” If you were from Great Britain or Ireland, you might call it a “fizzy drink.” If a man we have just met describes Mountain Dew as his favorite kind of Coke or calls it his favorite fizzy drink, we will automatically know something about him and we will assume much, much more, and what we know, what we think we know, and what we assume will all color our relationship with our new acquaintance.
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.
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.
Back in May of 2016, after hearing about the #WearOrange movement, which supports reasonable gun sales and gun ownership regulation, I got the idea to wear an orange stole at worship as a witness against gun violence. The idea caught on and spread. Recently, my friend Rosalind Hughes, who made my orange stole and a hundred others, asked me to sum up what I thought might achieved by the importing the #WearOrange movement into the liturgy of the church. This is what I wrote for her:
Several years ago, while serving in a parish in Kansas with a limited budget and little money for more than a few stoles, I made several full sets of vestments and, at that time, did some research on liturgical colors. One of the things I learned was that although orange is not now considered one of the standard colors of the liturgical spectrum, it was once considered an alternative to green for the Sundays of “ordinary time.” I also learned that it is an accepted color for vestments in the Russian Orthodox Church where, for some reason, it is considered appropriate to the Feast of Sts. Peter & Paul.
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.