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Sunday, February 18, 2007

A Sermon for the Last Sunday in Epiphany

The Transfiguration (Luke 9:28-36)
The Last Sunday after the Epiphany
Quinquagessima Sunday – February 18, 2006
The Episcopal Church of St. Paul
(the Rev’d) Elizabeth Kaeton, rector and pastor

I don’t know how you could have possibly missed this, and I’m sorry if I’m the one to break the news to you, but here it is: Anna Nicole Smith has died. It’s also true that the paternity of her five-month old daughter is being claimed by no less than five men – including her former husband who died several years ago at age 93. These facts have been reported in all of the media at least ten times a day for the past week.

But, in the midst of this “All-Anna-Nicole-All-The-Time,” did you also know this? At a gathering of the Primates of the World-wide Anglican Communion in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, seven of the 35 Primates present refused to have Eucharist with the Primate and Presiding Bishop of The Episcopal Church, the Most Rev’d Katharine Jefferts Schori. They said they could neither accept her ordination as a woman, nor her theology, which is accepting of LGBT people.

Understand, please, that the Primates are supposedly a collection of the wisest and most mature Christians in the Anglican Communion.

Meanwhile, a friend reporting on the Primates conference writes that the headline in today’s Tanazanian newspaper reads: “"Hunger Kills 18,000 Kids Each Day, UN Says".

Today we hear the story of the transfiguration of two of the great prophets of our church: Moses and Jesus. Both were transfigured after an encounter with God. Their faces shone with the glory of God, so much so that Moses covered his face with a veil when he went out to talk with the people and Peter was so befuddled when he saw Jesus that he didn’t know what to do or say.

I’ve been considering what it is that would make us focus on the foibles and frailties of a woman who was famous for being famous, or the paternity of her infant, orphaned daughter instead of oh, just about anything else. Say, perhaps, the fact that in 2006, there were 106 homicides in the city of Newark and what we might have to think about that.

I’m probably being naive and silly, but I’m thinking that if a few good minds were focused on these problems, we just might find a solution.

Why is it that even 34 men of God, Primates and leaders in the 77 million member Worldwide Anglican Communion would focus on the gender of one of their own and miss the presence of Jesus in their midst? Or, perhaps, why these so-called princes of the church might not be at least concerned about the children in the city of Dar es Salaam who might, perchance, be going to bed hungry that night?

Again, call me naive, but I’m thinking that if a few good hearts and minds were focused on these problems, the sexual orientation of less than10% of the population might not be consuming more than 100% of their attention.

Here’s my question as we end this Season of Light and enter the Season of Lent: Why do we hide our faces from God? Indeed, why is it that we are so fascinated with the darkness of the souls of others? Might it be that we are frightened of the darkness of our own souls?

Next week, the experience of church will be very different. Today, every song is an Alleluia. At the end of this service, however, the children will bury the Alleluia’s that will mark the beginning of the Season of Lent. The candles will come off the pews.

Deep purple will be the color of the vestments and altar hangings. The music will be somber. There will be lots of intentional, and perhaps for some, uncomfortable silence as part of the service.

We will be looking inward. Dropping our nets in deeper baptismal water. We will as pilgrims, begin a spiritual journey which always moves downward and inward toward the hardest concrete realities of our lives.

Several years ago, I heard Parker Palmer give an amazing lecture on the spirituality of leadership. I recently discovered my notes from his presentation which have brought me some insight about the spiritual journey we will be on in this Season of Lent. Let me quote to you from Palmer’s writing:

“I want to share with you a remarkable quote from Annie Dillard from a book with a wonderful title” Teaching a Stone to Talk. Dillard writes the following words, and I have never read a more evocative description of the nature of the inner spiritual journey:

“In the deeps are the violence and terror of which psychology has warned us. But if you ride these monsters deeper down, if you drop with them farther over the world’s rim, you find what our sciences cannot locate or name, the substrate, the ocean or matrix or ether which buoys the rest, which gives goodness its power for good, and evil its power for evil, the unified field: our complex and inexplicable caring for each other, and for our life together here. This is given. This is not learned.”

"Annie Dillard is saying several things of great importance for the spiritual journey on which we are about to embark in this Season of Lent. She is saying that we must go in and down. And she’s saying that on the ways down and in we will meet the violence and terror we have within ourselves that we project onto our institutions, onto our society.

She’s talking, for example about our tendency to make enemies by projecting what we hate within ourselves on somebody else because we don’t want to go down and in and meet the enemy in our own souls. So we imagine that someone out there is the enemy – people of another race or gender, people of another economic system – and we deal with the “enemy” by killing them, when what we are really reacting to is the shadow in ourselves."

"Annie Dillard is saying that we have to go down and in, and on the way we meet monsters. But if we ride those monsters all the way down, we find the most precious thing of all: the unified field, our complex and inexplicable caring for one another, the community we have underneath our brokenness, our life together which, she says, is given, not learned.”

Palmer goes on to share a parable about the inner journey of spirituality. In his early forties, he decided to go on that amazing program called “Outward Bound” on Hurricane Island – which might have given him a bit of a hint as to what was in store for him.

He writes, “The next time I will choose the program at Pleasant Valley or at Happy Gardens. It was a week of sheer terror. It was also a week of amazing growth and great teaching and a deep sense of community, the likes of which I’ve seldom experienced.”

“In the middle of that Outward Bound course I faced the challenge that I had most feared. They backed me up to the edge of a cliff that was 110 feet off the ground. They tied a very thin rope to my waist, a frayed and stretchy rope, and then they told me to back down that cliff.

So I said, ‘Well, what do I do?’ And the instructor said, ‘GO!’ So I went, and I went BOOM! down to that first ledge. I just slammed into that ledge with considerable force. The instructor looked down at me and said, “I don’t think you quite have it yet.”

“I said, “Right. Now what do I do?” He said, “The only way to do this is to lean back as far as you can, because you have to get your feet at right angles to the rock face so you’ll have pressure on them.”

Parker writes, “Of course, I knew that he was wrong. I knew that the trick was to hug the mountain, to stay as close to the rock face as you can. So I tried it again, and BOOM! I hit the ledge. Not quite as hard, but I slipped and hit it again.

He said, “You still don’t have it.” And I said, “Well, what do I do?” And he said, “Lean way back and take the next step.” The next step was a very big one, but I took it. Wonder of wonders, I began to get it. I leaned back, and sure enough, I was moving down that rock face, eyes on the heavens, making tiny, tiny, tiny movements with my feet, but gaining confidence with every step.”

Parker continues, “When I got about half way down, a second instructor called up from below. She said, “Parker, I think you better stop and look at what’s happening beneath your feet.” So I lowered my eyes (very slowly, so that I wouldn’t change my center of gravity), and there beneath my feet a large hole was opening up in the rock – which meant that I was going to have to change directions.”

“I froze. I have never been so paralyzed in my life, so full of physical fear. I knew I could do it if I could just keep going straight, but I could not change directions. I just froze in sheer terror. The teacher let me hang there for what seemed like a very long time, and finally she shouted up, “Parker, is anything wrong?”

To this day, I do not know where these words came from (although I have twelve witnesses that I spoke them). But in a high, squeaky voice I said, “I don’t want to talk about it.”

The teacher said, “Then I think it’s time you learned the motto of the Outward Bound School.”

I thought, “Oh keen! I’m about to die, and she’s giving me a motto!”

But then she yelled up to me the words that I will never forget, words that have been genuinely empowering for me ever since.

She said, “The motto of the Outward Bound Hurricane Island School is, ‘IF YOU CAN’T GET OUT OF IT, GET INTO IT!”

Parker writes, “I have believed in the idea of “the word became flesh” for a long time, but I had never had a real experience of it. But those words seemed so profoundly true to me at that existential moment, that they entered my body, bypassed my mind, and moved my legs and feet. It was just so clear that there was no way out of that situation except to get into it. No helicopter was going to come; they weren’t going to haul me up on the rope; I wasn’t going to float down. I had to get into it, and my feet started to move.”

“That image is very powerful to me. It is an image of the movement of the spiritual life and why it is that anyone would ever want to take that inner journey that Annie Dillard writes about. The answer is: There is no way out of our inner lives, so we’d better get into them. In the downward, inward journey, the only way out is in and through.”

Parker Palmer doesn’t write this, but I’d be willing to bet solid money that when he got off the side of that rock, his face shone. His was an experience of transfiguration – one that changed his life and that of those around him – and he was never again the same.

Everything in us cries out against having this kind of experience. That’s why, I believe, we externalize everything. It’s easier to deal with the external world. It’s easier to spend your life manipulating an institution than it is dealing with your own soul. We make institutions sound complicated and hard and rigorous, but they are a piece of cake compared with our inner workings!

Which is why, I think, it’s easier to focus on Anna Nicole Smith, or the paternity of her infant orphaned daughter, or seven pompous Primates in Tanzania. It’s much easier to focus on the demons of others than ride our own monsters down over the world’s rim.

This is the real journey we prepare ourselves to take, beginning this Wednesday, and through the Season of Lent. We will mark our foreheads with ashes as a sign of our mortality. Some of us will leave the ashes there – on the surface – a mark that proclaims to the world that we’ve been to church. And those of us who do will have our reward.

Others of us, those of us who dare, will sift through the ashes of our lives, getting our hands dirty for a season in the stuff of our own mortality. For those of us who do, for those of us who make the journey downward and inward, a sacred truth awaits to be discovered or uncovered or recovered. And, the promise is that we will emerge from that journey, like Moses and Jesus, with our souls transfigured and our lives transformed and we will never again be the same.

And, neither will our world. Which is, after all, the point of our lives in Christ.



Bill said...

Elizabeth, I loved the sermon. It hit home on many levels. I know that the quote from Annie’s experience, ‘IF YOU CAN’T GET OUT OF IT, GET INTO IT!” made me reflect back on my life. There was a time some years ago; when I tried to “Get Out Of” life but survived and then found that I had to “Get Into it.” Life is a linear experience. There is no going back and no side-trips. We may think at times that we are standing still or even going in circles, but the clock is still ticking. So all we have left, is trying to get out, which I do not recommend, or really getting into it and making it the best we can.

About Tanzania, what can I say?
Elizabeth writes; “Understand, please, that the Primates are supposedly a collection of the wisest and most mature Christians in the Anglican Communion.” Unfortunately their wisdom and maturity are focused on preserving their own power and view of the church. I’m reminded of the classic story of Galileo Galilei (1564-1642). “In 1614, from the pulpit of Santa Maria Novella, Father Tommaso Caccini (1574-1648) denounced Galileo's opinions on the motion of the Earth, judging them dangerous and close to heresy. Galileo went to Rome to defend himself against these accusations. However, in 1616, Cardinal Roberto Bellarmino (1542-1621) personally handed Galileo an admonition enjoining him to neither advocate nor teach Copernican astronomy, because it was contrary to the accepted understanding of the Holy Scriptures.” So here, in mid-church history we have the same situation. In order to preserve power and the accepted scriptural interpretations of the time, they would not admit to the lunacy that the earth revolved around the Sun.

But just as the people of the world learned otherwise, that the Earth does indeed revolve around the Sun, I see a time when the current ultra conservative views regarding gender and sexual preference will be put aside by the people. The bishops may think they have the power, but in the end, it is always the people. If we can continue to gently change the views of the people, through example and understanding, then this too shall pass.

Suzer said...

I often find your sermons thought-provoking and inspiring. Thank you for posting them here. My partner and I are in between churches and I sometimes wonder if I'll ever feel comfortable attending church again. So, it's nice to be able to find places, such as your blog, where I can be fed spiritually. I recognize the importance of being a part of a church (or other) community, but at least I needn't starve during my time in the wilderness. Thank you.

(I wish I lived in NJ!)