get ready!

Epiphany 1-22-17a sermon, based on Matthew 25.1-13, preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on the 23rd Sunday after Pentecost, November 12, 2017

“Keep awake…for you know neither the day nor the hour.”

Jesus, identifying his ministry, identifying himself with the coming of the kingdom of heaven, symbolized by a wedding banquet, tells a parable about bridesmaids waiting for the bridegroom. Him! Some are ready and invited to the feast. Others are not and are left out.

Parable of the Bridesmaids, James Tissot (1836-1902)

Reflecting on this story, I, as one who came of age in the 1960s, recall the words of a song of the late, great Curtis Mayfield:

People get ready! There’s a train a-coming.

Don’t need no baggage. You just get on board.

All you need is faith to hear the diesels humming.

Don’t need no ticket. You just thank the Lord.[1]

A train’s a-coming. Mayfield’s metaphor for passage to eternity, for which the required readiness is neither the earthly “baggage” of material attainment nor the “ticket” of personal attributes and achievements, but simply, only faith.

This past week, I had a conversation with a dear friend; though I did more listening than talking. Though young (I consider her as a daughter), she’s made what she considers a lifetime of mistakes. In her view, her prospects are unclear and her horizons, what she can see of them, veiled in shadow.

This morning, I step back from the threshold of eternity to focus on this world. This sermon, the fruit of my listening to my friend, is what I want to say, what I will say to her.

This business of readiness is a resonant theme throughout our daily living. We want to be ready. On top of our game. At the peak of our powers. Physically rested. Emotionally stable. Mentally alert. Financially solvent. Conversant with the tasks at hand and confident of having the necessary skills in hand.

I often wish that when we succeed at being ready, accomplishing what we set out to do, proving again our ability, polishing our life’s record of excellence that would be the end of it. But no! Life continues to challenge our readiness, presenting us with ongoing opportunities “to do it again” and, thereby, reminding us of moments when we weren’t ready. Moments that will come again. When confidence falters. When anxiety overwhelms. When we fail.

Whenever that happens, then we know how the foolish bridesmaids felt. Whenever we, as they, showing up with oil in their lamps, offer our well-intentioned best. Whenever we, as they, bringing not enough oil for as long as they had to wait, discover our best is not enough. Whenever we, as they, hear that word of rejection, most painfully spoken when looking in the mirror that reflects our guilt in letting others down and perhaps our shame in seeing again the face of less than our best: “I do not know you!”

Now, I do not know whether any of this registers for or resonates within you. Speaking for myself, manifold have been my experiences of this. Thus, I know and again I declare that life continues to challenge our readiness.

But that can be good news. For as long as life lasts, there are second chances. Therefore, the judgment “I do not know you” on our failures, on us is not final.

To behold in life the possibility, the reality of second chances, whether understood as bestowed by the hand of an ever-loving, ever-forgiving God or offered in each new opportunity or both and more, can give us hope and courage to be in the moment, making the best decisions we can, and living with the consequences without that oft self-imposed burden of having to prove how good and right we and our choices are.

A train always is a-coming. It’s called “second chance.” Readiness is having faith, believing that is so and climbing on board when it comes. So,

People get ready! There’s a train a-coming.

Don’t need no baggage. You just get on board.

All you need is faith to hear the diesels humming.

Don’t need no ticket. You just thank the Lord.

 

Illustration: The Parable of the Bridesmaids, James Tissot (1836-1902). Note: Tissot’s painting portrays the five wise bridesmaids who, awaiting the arrival of the bridegroom “became drowsy and slept” (Mathew 25.5), nevertheless, having brought more than sufficient oil, have their lamps lit. I assume that Tissot, in not depicting the five foolish bridesmaids, therefore not following the flow of the parable, wished to infer that they had departed to buy oil for their lamps.

Footnote:

[1] From the song, People Get Ready (1965); words and music by Curtis Lee Mayfield (1942-1999)

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Of life in the still-Christian South (a retired cleric’s occasional reflections)…

On the passage of death

Daily, I read the obituary page of my local newspaper, memorializing those, most of whom I do not know, who have died. I proffer as much care and attention as, perhaps more than I render to the A section, op/ed, business, local news, and sports pages. For I, believing in the sacred, shared kinship of humankind – or, à la John Donne, “No man is an Island, entire of itself…any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankind”[1] – reflect on the text associated with each name and photograph; the words constituting a brief biography of familial roots and relationships, associations and achievements; these summations of multiple journeys in and through this world shaping the larger story of the life of a community.

Daily, nearly every announcement, after listing the resident’s South Carolina town or city, her/his name, age, address, and date of death, contains the following wording, representative of a decidedly Christian religious ethos: “passed peacefully into eternity” or “went home to be with the Lord” or “gained her/his wings”.

cross

There was a time, now long past, when I, at best, that is, charitably, eschewed (and, honesty compels the confession, at worst, that is, disparaged) such language; considering it sentimentalizing metaphor of the stark fact of death. When rising to the heights (or rather falling into the depths) of my theological elitism (truly, alway a pseudo-sophistication, for I ne’er possess the last or first and surely not the only word on anything!), I opined: “Passed? Passed where?” orHome? Home is hereorWings? Angels, if there are angels, have wings.”

Daily, as I continue my inexorable journey toward the threshold of my death, I have come to appreciate these phrases. I read and interpret them as expressions of hope. The hope of those who live that their loved ones abide forever in the nearest presence of God. The hope that the Apostle Paul’s words are true:

We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about those who have died, so that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have died…Therefore encourage one another with these words.[2]

and

So it is with the resurrection of the dead. What is sown is perishable, what is raised is imperishable…It is sown a physical body, it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a physical body, there is also a spiritual body…For this perishable body must put on imperishability, and this mortal body must put on immortality. When this perishable body puts on imperishability, and this mortal body puts on immortality, then the saying that is written will be fulfilled: “Death has been swallowed up in victory!”[3]

Yes, I have come to appreciate, indeed, favor “passed peacefully into eternity”, “went home to be with the Lord”, and “gained wings”, for these phrases capture my hope, too. My hope, again, à la Donne, that: All mankind is of one Author, and is one volume; when one man dies, one Chapter is not torn out of the book, but translated into a better language.[4]

 

 

Footnotes:

[1] From Meditations XVII, John Donne (1572-1631), English poet, lawyer, and Church of England cleric

[2] 1 Thessalonians 4.13-14, 18

[3]  1 Corinthians 15.42, 44, 53-54

[4] From Meditations XVII. The full text of this passage: All mankind is of one Author, and is one volume; when one man dies, one Chapter is not torn out of the book, but translated into a better language; and every Chapter must be so translated; God employs several translators; some pieces are translated by age, some by sickness, some by war, some by justice; but God’s hand is in every translation; and his hand shall bind up all our scattered leaves again, for that Library where every book shall lie open to one another.

a baseball classic

This year’s Major League Baseball World Series between the Los Angeles Dodgers and the Houston Astros, with Houston leading 3-2 in a best-of-seven game format, already has been declared by some sports pundits as a classic. Both teams possess great pitching and batting, the Dodgers perhaps leading in the former and Houston, the latter, and two of the five games have extended into extra innings with the last at bat determining the winner. Born and raised in St. Louis, I grew up watching and loving the Cardinals and this series brings back fondest memories of regaling in the finest moments of America’s national pastime.

However, a non-baseball-related, but rather a manifestly cultural incident, one that hovers over the current roiling waters of societal discontent, has riveted my attention.

This past Friday, in game 3, Astros player Yuli Gurriel, after hitting a home run, motioned toward Dodgers pitcher Yu Darvish, who is of Japanese and Iranian descent. Gurriel placed his hands on the sides of his face, pulling and slanting the corners of his eyes.

Unsurprisingly, the reactions have been swift.

Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred announced that Gurriel would be suspended without compensation for five games at the beginning of the 2018 season; believing it would not be fair to the Astros team to exact the penalty during the current series…

The Astros management, expressing shock at Gurriel’s behavior, supports Manfred’s ruling…

Gurriel has apologized to Darvish, declaring his respect for him as a player and as a person and for the Japanese people…

Some, interpreting Gurriel’s action as a racist slur against Asian Americans, are outraged…

Others consider Gurriel’s gesture a-caught-on-camera-adrenaline-fueled-in-heat-of-the-unfortunate-moment…

Still others have seen the incident as a display of minority-vs.-minority stereotyping; and, viewed through that lens, all the more regrettable; especially in Houston, one of America’s most ethnically and racially diverse cities.

In a tweet, Darvish wrote: No one is perfect. That includes both you and me. What he (did) today isn’t right, but I believe we should put our effort into learning rather than to accuse him. If we can take something from this, that is a giant step for mankind. Since we are living in such a wonderful world, let’s stay positive and moving forward instead of focusing on anger. I’m counting on everyone’s big love.

Mr. Darvish, your words, for me, are a classic expression of compassion, comprehension, and consideration. May your hope be fulfilled.

eyestrain

IMG_3125A new ache here. Another pain there. I woke up ruefully reminded of aging. My aging. (Somewhere near 50, I gave up the idea of immortality; though, on occasion, I still fantasize about living forever!) Of all the changes, the most disconcerting has to do with my eyes. Despite my vanity trifocals (without the telltale lines), sometimes I squint to see clearly.

Concerning my sight, the advance of years crosses a symbolic line from physical matter to spiritual concern. It’s the vision thing! With fewer years before me than behind, I hunger to behold a life of fulfillment. Perhaps because I have lived long enough to have seen enough (too many!) dreams deferred or denied – in history, in the lives of others, in my life – I see less and, at times, believe less.

For my morning’s meditation, I turned to Ecclesiasticus, aka the Book of Ben Sira, a Jewish teacher in Jerusalem around 200 BCE. In a turbulent time, Ben Sira, witnessing the excesses of imperialistic nations, spoke of the pride that originates in “forsaking the Lord; the heart withdrawing from its Maker.”

It struck me that when one, whether nation or person, aspires to no greater good, whether God or a virtuous common ideal, and rather, to paraphrase the prayer, “follows the devices and desires of one’s own heart”, then pride erupts and corrupts.

Ben Sira described the judgment on human pride: “The overthrow of rulers and enthronement of the lowly; plucking up the roots of proud nations and planting the humble.” Immediately, I turned to the Magnificat, the song of Mary, when an angel announced that she would become Christokos, Christ-bearer: “My soul magnifies the Lord who scatters the proud in the imaginations of their hearts, bringing down the powerful from their thrones, lifting up the lowly.”

A remarkable vision, whether understood as divine intervention in human history or as symbolic expression of the triumph of human goodness. But where do I see it? Reading human history, its pages indelibly stained with innocent blood, and looking at the world today, the proud prosper, the humble suffer. Still. And, in my aging, more and more I strain to see the vision.

Yes, there have been moments when there was a glimmer of love and justice made real. The end of American slavery and the overthrow of apartheid swiftly come to mind. But I do not forget the countless who died. An old phrase, “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church”, suggests that the sacrifice of human life can bring great good. Still I grieve for those who never saw the realization of the vision for which they long prayed. So, for them, going forward, in my age and in my aging, with the world still fraught with the prospering of the proud and the suffering of the humble, I strain to see a vision.

Yet I have hope, energized by the lives of some remarkable young people (old enough to be my children and grandchildren) who daily in private conversation and public action embody love and justice. One confronts and challenges anti-Semitism whenever it arises. Another advocates for  the liberation of Palestinian peoples. Another addresses imbalances and abuses of power in corporate boardrooms and church councils. Another labors to protect and sustain the environment. These and more, whatever their fields of endeavor, verily their callings, bring to life the vision already alit in their minds and hearts with a depth of passion, a breadth of wisdom, and a height of compassion. Because of them, I have hope. Because of them, I can see.

a recommended routine for raging recalcitrants

Our world, again, is at war. Globally in that land we call “holy”, in Iraq, Syria, Ukraine, and places, sadly, too numerous to name. Regionally, in Ferguson, Missouri, with protesters, following the shooting death of an unarmed black teenager, crying for justice into the ears of seemingly heedless, clueless local law enforcement. Nationally in Washington, DC, where our executive, judicial, and legislative branches are mired in a dance of dysfunction, and I, with wearily shaking head, watch what I call “governance as combat”. It seems, feels to me that so many of us have mislaid the grace of civil conversation aimed at achieving consensus (or at least compromise) for the common good.

What underlies this unwillingness to engage in open communication (in which all participants arrive with clearly articulated agendas and equally expressed capacities to listen, portending the possibility of change of mind) is a shared lack of trust in mutual regard and respect.

dialogue4I believe in the power of dialogue (dia, through + logos, word) to open doors and build bridges (or whatever the operable metaphor for making meaningful connections among competing perspectives).

I also am opinionated. I relish the rigor of my own thought processes and patterns. As such (and I can’t recall when I first heard and began to practice this “stretching” exercise, perhaps it was during my high school debating days), when confronted by another point of view, I listen intently so to learn the ins-and-outs of that “other” outlook until I can articulate (argue) that alternate position with as much vigor and truth as my own. Seeing life through another’s worldview deepens my comprehension of and compassion for the greater humanity of which we always are a part.

in 2 words…what if?

My mother, Lolita, was an elementary school teacher, her sister, my aunt Evelyn, a college English professor, and their mother, my grandmother Audia, an instructor in the Baptist Church educational system in St. Louis. They, each in her own way, taught my brother Wayne and me the value of words and our care in their employ. (My grandmother ceaselessly advised us of the “efficiency” of the English language, enabling one who mastered its vast vocabulary to communicate with depth and nuance. In that, she admonished that Wayne and I not use the same word twice, particularly nouns and verbs, in the same sentence or in the same paragraph. She summoned us to practice our skills by writing her letters, which she dutifully soon returned with red pencil-marked corrections! It stung at the time, but I learned to devour dictionaries.) The three of them also repeatedly called us, oft in the mid-breath of speech, to define our terms.

From these three vitally generative women I learned that words, as symbols, alway point beyond themselves to larger realities, that an indelible difference resides between what is said and what is meant, and that no two people, no matter the similarity in terminology and usage (or, indeed, in life’s circumstances and perspective), generally, perhaps ever mean the same thing. (The complications awash in this last insight are all the more manifest when translating betwixt and among languages.)

As I awaken each day to greet, if not welcome the news updates of the latest clashes in a worldwide summer-surfeit of violence and suffering (or what may seem the lesser, but, for me, still depressingly debilitating infighting among our national branches of government), the early 20th century words of Frank Mason Neale come to mind: Where cross the crowded ways of life, where sound the cries of race and clan; above the noise of selfish strife…

Though Neale, in the closing line of that first stanza (…we hear thy voice, O Son of man), prayed that we listen to Jesus, the divine and loving word of help, hope, and healing, I, on this day, wonder…

What if we, humans, all of us, around the world, and at every level of our relational living – local, regional, national, international, and personal – called and observed a cease-fire in our warring of words (as well as in the launching of our…any weaponry)? What if, even for an hour, we refrained from all vituperative verbiage that vilifies another (any other), all diatribal dialogue that denounces as demonic the intentions of another (any other)?

Words -LIFEAnd, at the cease-fire’s end, what if we defined our terms, speaking only of ourselves, our hopes and dreams, our intentions (what we deem to be and to become) and our expectations (how we desire to see our purposes come to light and to life) and all in a way that neither demeans any other nor demands another’s loss? Such self-centered speaking, perhaps paradoxically, might be a step toward safer, even more, mutually respectful living.

Empathy Matters

Empathy Matters - joined hands picture

Globally, tragic events, among them, warring and plane crashes, nature-created and human-caused, multiply and in a concentrated a period of time. (Why does it feel that summer is a season riper than others for the explosive, literally, propagation of violence and suffering?)

As I grieve, I perceive at the heart of much sorrow, especially that generated by human will, is a lack of regard, an active disregard for the dignity of our common humankindness.

Some years ago, I embarked on a half-year, round-the-world sabbatical. The theme. Conversation, Not Conversion. The idea. I, as a Christian, immersed in an increasingly and incontrovertibly pluralistic world of manifold philosophical/theological and ethical systems, yearned to engage others, “the other” in dialogue for purposes of mutual understanding and peace.

As a fruit of my experiences, I wrote a short piece entitled, Principles of Engagement of “The Other.” Presuming no authority as a behavioral guide (this was no Washington policy white paper!), I sought to share values or attitudes that I believed essential in any encounter with anyone who differs from me in any way.

Empathy was the first of nine. (Again, not professing any über-knowledgeable status, I deliberately fell short of that sacred biblical number of ten!) I defined empathy as my feeling in (not my sympathy or feeling with) another. To empathize was to seek to be in another’s reality, to see and hear, think and feel what another experiences. To empathize rather than to sympathize allowed me to identify with another even though I may not or could not agree with another.

Over time, I’ve rethought what I think I believe. In the light or the shadow of ongoing clashes between and among races and clans, ideologies and sects, national armies and factional militias, accompanied by equal and mutual invective by which persons and parties vilify, demonize their enemies, I wonder if empathy is possible.

In one sense, given that I believe that we comprehend reality through the lenses of our, though human, always individual living, empathy, as I describe it, is impossible. I can know my pain (and joy), but not yours, at least not fully. In the face of your tears (or laughter) I truthfully could say at most, “I have known sadness (or happiness).” (Though it would be kind of me not to say that, for to do so, perhaps unintentionally, would infer that your sharing your experience gave me occasion to focus on me.)

Still, in a world where suffering and sorrow are constant companions, where bodies, especially those of children, are battered and blown apart by bombs, I pray that the next incident – despite our varying skin hues, our different cultures and beliefs, our diverse ancestries and histories, especially those given to the nurturance of memories of past offenses and the thirst for vengeance – in which we behold the common color red of blood spilled may shock us into a new empathetic awareness of the blessedness of our humankindness.