Archive for May, 2008

Kyrie Eleison

Friday, May 23rd, 2008

Matthew 6: 24-34

Memorial Sunday

Dear Rebecca,

You may not remember Al, but he loved you. Even in his eighties he had an unerring capacity to relate to kids. You and your brother grew up while he finished his ministry. Al died one week after he stopped work as the assistant pastor of our church.

Al stood about five feet tall. He was bald, hairless as a billiard ball. He wore thick glasses. One friend, who never says a critical word about anyone, once said that Al was the homeliest person she had ever met, but no one ever noticed because he was so loving.

I met Al when I was myself a teenager. Actually, I had known him during my childhood, as an infrequent clergy visitor to our home, a large and foggy category of preachers, ministers, chaplains, priests, itinerants and other vaguely odd spiritual leaders who were vaguely connected to our parents.

In high school I went to Owasco lake for a week of summer camp. Al I think led the camp, or at least he was around. A few years later I was working there as the lifeguard and every summer, without fail, Al would take his volunteer week to work with high schoolers. I remember drinking beer with Al past midnight around a fire down on the shore. One young cleric was busy criticizing the nascent fundamentalists (a group for which Al also had some disdain). After the hot air faded, Al sipped and leaned forward to say to the young turk: ‘I suppose you are right, but those folks have had a religious experience—something you might want to have yourself sometime.’ He added later that clergy who were hyper active in liturgy or politics usually had never had a real religious experience. Those two categories pretty much included, one way or the other, all the fire lit faces around that midnight hearth.

Al knew you, and your brother, during the years I hired him at our church as my assistant. We paid him hardly anything. He and Ruth bought their first home, on at tree line street, at age 70, after he finally retired. He took out a thirty year mortgage, a daily source mirth for him, a mirth he contrived to share with all comers. In fact, though, he personally lived to pay twenty of those years, if I remember right. It is hard to convey how simply happy Ruth and Al were to have their own home. After five decades of life under the leaky roofs of various parsonages, and after five decades of life under the stingy thumbs of various parsonage committees, their thousand foot house and postage stamp lawn was their prize and paradise, their pride and joy. To think of it makes me ashamed of the times in life I have thought I should have more, or would like more, or deserved more. In the winter he died, Al hornswaggled a friend into redoing the kitchen for Ruth. He saw that the parsonage kitchen was redone and decided Ruth should have something just as nice. It was. She used it for a decade more, to good hospitable avail you can be sure.

Al loved you and your older brother, and your Mom and Dad, who loved him too. Sometimes Al would hold court in his front room, his big black dog between his legs, Al rubbing behind the years. You may remember that the dog’s name. Satan. Al smoked pretty heavily, well into his late eighties. I say that not as recommendation but as recognition, recognition of humanity. He also drank some beer. One neighbor on Scott Ave called the Bishop to complain that he saw the retired pastor drinking beer in the evening. ‘It’s nice to have people so concerned about your well being, isn’t it?’ This was Al’s wry comment.

I noted such Alphorisms. He called one of our great hearted lay leaders, Iva Gorman, ‘stormin’ Gorman’, and is the only person she would have allowed to do so. Sometimes he called Iva, ‘Iva the Terrible’, but not directly to her face. Another person, a female type woman as he would say, who shall remain nameless, Al identified vocationally as, to quote him precisely, ‘a test pilot in a broom factory’. Of those who seemed, to him, wrong spirited, he offered this proverb: ‘I don’t mind people being Christian as long as they are nice about it.’

In his parish, a good village church along one of the deep, great Finger lakes, one of the saintliest women in town, a recently retired single school teacher, was struck by lightning while she trimmed her roses. I am told that at the funeral, Al got up, tried to speak, cried, and cried, and wept, and, at last, said, ‘we have no idea why these things happen, we have no way to explain why these things happen’. Then he sat down.

I knew, during my own college years, that if I ever got into a pickle that I could not get out of alone, and could not discuss with my parents, I could go to Al. I never did, though I almost did once. But I had him in the back of my mind all those stormy years. While I gaze at that in memory I realize that that is just about the best definition of a pastor I could give. Someone you could go to, even if you never do, when the chips are down.

I had a good friend whom he counseled well, a young man who had been away from home, and came home to learn that his girlfriend had been dating other boys. The young man did not come to Al for counsel, but one evening Al found him on the street and told him a joke. ‘A man and woman die and go to heaven. St Peter gives the man a tricycle for transportation and explains that heavenly vehicles are based on the amount of dating activity you had on earth. The next day the man sees his wife driving a Cadillac.’ They laughed, and Al caught the young man’s eye, with a tear filled eye of his own. They laughed so hard they cried, Al crying the harder.
While I gaze at that in memory, I realize that that is just about the best definition of a pastor I could give. Someone who accompanies you, overhears your pain, pierces your pain with wit and skill, drains your hurt, and walks away with you as you walk away well. The tricycle and the Cadillac lived happily ever after by the way.

Rebecca, you know the chapel at that old Campground on Owasco lake. You remember it is a rustic all wood Adirondack style Chapel, with a fifteen food window behind the cross, looking out at five miles of Finger Lake beauty. You grew up in the gaze of that chapel. You learned to swim two miles down from that window and cross. You got your boating license in order to run the motorboat back and forth past that campground, that chapel, that window, and that cross. You know the people who built it, or at least their names. (G Y Benton, Vivian’s uncle. L Schaff, who convinced the Case people to give the land for Methodist youth. C Skeele—he built the building, ‘Skeele-built’ he would say, add 10% to the price. Irving Hill, President of the Conference Youth Council at the time.) People like Al, and Ruth, who gave whatever meager shekels they may have had, with typical, generous, careless, abandon, and who gave their time to kids, sitting on the hard benches of that rustic church. I bet you can hear the bell ring, in your mind’s ear, the big old church bell that sits at the doorstep.

Gong. Gong. Gong. Gong. Gong.

In my last month as a lifeguard there, I came sauntering down the road. My friend asks me to be attentive to the etymology of the word saunter. I am. I came sauntering down the road at age twenty. From there, because of the incline, you can see right into the full chapel, and up to the cross, and on through the window, and on a clear morning, right down the lake, right down to the end of the lake, right there where Charon has his boat. It was a clear morning that morning. Sometimes when I have had too much religion, I travel myself by memory back to age twenty, your age Rebecca, back to that downhill road, back to that campground, back to that chapel, back to that window, and back to that cross. I have not decided what to do in life as I come down that road. I am not married. I have no children. I have no parchment, no degree. I have no military experience, no romantic experience, no financial experience, no tragic sense of life. Not quite yet. I am lollygagging, breakfast served and done, swimming lessons to teach, sunshine on my shoulder. Sunshine on my shoulder.

In the chapel I see, though he cannot see me, a short, bald, bespectacled, homely fellow, swinging a broom in the air. At first I find it a source of hilarity—old Al has finally lost it. But as I approach, as I peer into the darkened church, I see that Al is deadly serious. He is utterly absorbed in his flayling about. A sparrow is trapped in the chapel, and, Al must have seen, is set on flying straight toward false deliverance, straight at the clear glass, straight at the brightly scrubbed religious glass cleaned up with so much Methodist cleanliness is next to godliness piety that the poor thing is deceived into mistaking piety for salvation, glass for air. Kyrie Eleison! Al swings, shouts, jumps, doing as he can everything he can to drive the bird out of the church, to drive the bird out the open door, past the steps, out the path, over the bell, beyond the little steeple, and into the grace and freedom of the open air.

His parishioner however is an orthodox bird, religious and pious, and set on a disciplined course. What bird anyway ever understands until it is too late the difference between air and glass, freedom and religion?

I watch, and I suddenly have the dread feeling that I am an uninvited observer in a personal drama, trauma, amid flora and fauna. Al swings, the bird loops, dives, lifts, flies—thud.

Gong. Gong. Gong. Gong. Gong.

Unseen, I watch Al as Al groans and cries. He moves to the window, and shamelessly I watch from my hiding place. Under the cross he finds the bird, another victim of religion and piety, deader than a doornail. He takes a large white handkerchief from his pocket. Later in life, his and mine, I learn the constant contents of his pocket—handkerchief, cigarettes, billfold, pocket knife. He bows to the bird. He gathers the sparrow in his hands, weeping, covers the bird in his handkerchief, weeping, holds the bird at the glass, weeping.

I saw this with my own eyes.

There he stood, before the beautiful blue expanse, the home and heart loveliness of Owasco Lake, in the heart of the Finger Lakes, the single most beautiful place in the world, heaven for those of us who did swim there. I stood as long as his back was toward me, a good long while. Then, when he began to move, to find a way toward some natural burial, I jogged out down to the waterfront, and to my safety duties, and to the teaching of the prone float. I never mentioned it to Al, and he never spoke of it in my hearing.

In the next several years I became better acquainted with, better related to tragedy, of various sorts. Into each life a little rain must fall. I ended up a preacher, too, not least because of Al. I preached at funerals. I preached at memorials. I preached on Memorial Sundays. I preached at commemorations. Once a year I preached on Good Friday. Thirty and more years later I look back through the open chapel door, past the pews, over the cross, out through the window and over the lake. There still is Al, still before the silence of lake and cross. I felt that day that I had been given a front row seat at something, somewhere, (Mercy? Calvary?), at the origins of loving and giving. We live out of the future and understand out of the past. While I gaze at this in memory, or recollection, I realize that this is just about the best definition I can give of a pastor. One who knows the difference between religion and salvation, between glass and air, between cross and freedom, and chases those hiding from life out of church into life, with all his might, and when he fails, knows and shows cruciform love.

R
ebecca, my Memorial Sunday prayer for you is that you will take a sense of cradling care with you, for every hour, on every day, enough to sustain you and your family, and enough more to share with your neighbor.

Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you shall eat or what you shall drink, nor about your body, what you shall put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And which of you by being anxious can add one cubit to his span of life? And why are you anxious about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin; yet I tell you Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed as one of these…The Gentiles seek all these things; and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things shall be yours as well.

Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? And not one of them will fall to the ground without your Father’s will. Even the hairs of your head are numbered. Fear not therefore; you are of more value than many sparrows.

Kryie Eleison…

Kyrie Eleison…

Kryie Eleison…

Kryie Eleison…

Kryie Eleison…

A Great Thanksgiving

Sunday, May 4th, 2008


Luke 24: 44-53

Ascension Sunday

In a moment we shall again stand together to proclaim the mystery of faith. We shall offer a great thanksgiving. Responsively, we shall offer the Lord’s presence to one another. Responsively, we shall encourage one another to lift our hearts to the Lord. Responsively, we shall recall the right goodness, the good rightness of great thanksgiving. Friends, we are rooted and grounded in a history of joyful blessing, of great and loving thanksgiving. Eucharist means thanksgiving.

Our gospel is rooted and grounded in a history of thanksgiving, even as it is read and spoken in order to root us and ground us in love. Luke, the author of both readings for today, has every intention of bonding us to the long parade of women and men who lived with happy hearts, in joyful blessing and great thanksgiving. Our Sunday service of ordered worship has its own roots deep in the past, carrying us in memory all the way back into the first century. You come from people who were thankful people, joyfully praising God. They give us a clear example, these earlier witnesses, of a balanced faith, a faith honest to God about sin, death and meaninglessness, but a faith yet confident, joyful and thankful in life. Luke ends his first book, the gospel, and starts his second, the Acts, with thanksgiving.

Now we may pause a moment to be grateful for the form of Luke’s message. He does believe in doing things decently and in order. Luke provides, by his own assessment, dear Theophilus, an orderly account. It is his view that the words of the Old Testament in law and prophets and psalms, when written of the Christ, are fulfilled in an orderly account of the life of Christ. It is Luke’s further view that Christ opens minds to understand Scripture. Luke makes plain the prediction, embedded in a right reading of inherited Scripture, of cross and resurrection and repentance and forgiveness and the preaching of all the above. It is his understanding that disciples are thus witnesses of all these things. They will be blessed as they bear witness. We will be blessed as we bear witness. You will be blessed as you bear witness. His gospel ends with our reading today, an orderly ending to a well ordered gospel. Jesus blesses and leaves. The disciples give thanks and stay.

Some of the ancient manuscripts which we have of this passage say simply, ‘he blessed them and parted from them’. Others read, ‘he blessed them and parted from them and was carried up into heaven’. It is not clear, at least to this interpreter, which reading is stronger, which more probably original. Yet it is significant, at least to this interpreter, to see and know that more than one version of this passage exists. The addition, if it was a later addition, of ‘was carried up into heaven’, makes this passage a suitable and qualified Ascension passage, unmistakably congruent to the account in Acts 1. Luke’s penchant for the orderly may have inspired a follower of his to do likewise, and clean up one aspect of the conclusion to the gospel. To Luke it mattered to put things in order, to get things right. His spiritual descendents may have had the same passion. The true desire to get things right reveals, makes naked, a joyful thanksgiving. A passion for true goodness, good beauty, beautiful truth, in life, work, politics, music, art, architecture, religion, hospitality and friendship reveals, unclothes, a spirit of thanksgiving.

We are thankful for Luke’s orderly account. We may be a bit mystified by the mythic account of Ascension. We may be less than certain of the meaning of such symbolic imagery in our own time. But we can be utterly confident about the effect of Ascension, on our forebears, and so on us. The religious consequence of the Luke’s conclusion to the Gospel is thanksgiving. The religious consequence of Luke’s introduction to Acts is thanksgiving. Our Sunday praise of God is thanksgiving.

For all the dimness of creation, of the created order and the history within it, for all the trouble in life, in the gift of life and the history that comes with it, for all the fracture in body, in the body of Christ and the history that comes with it, still, at Ascension, there is thanksgiving. Sometimes the gospel and its very human interpreters need to shore up our sense of the way things have gone wrong. I suppose Lent and perhaps Advent too are markedly important seasons for emphasis upon the Fall—the way creation has somehow been loosened from the divine grasp. Sometimes the gospel and its very human interpreters need to short up our sense of creation as God’s creative act, in thanksgiving for what is right. Eastertide and Ascension may be such times. Today, in gospel and Eucharist, is such a day.

With you, I try to read the news and listen to the events of the day. As you do, I try to overhear behind the immediate din of sounds and bites, something of the heart of people and of our people. This spring, sometimes, I overhear a pained and painful sense of doubt about the possibilities in life. A doubt that things can change very much. A doubt that anything new could ever emerge. A doubt that people can repent and turn around. A doubt that systems, so entrenched and contentious, can ever be made orderly. A doubt that any of the older differences among us can ever be bridged. A doubt that any common expression of faith can be trusted. A doubt that any common faith or common ground or common hope can ever, with authenticity, emerge and survive. A doubt that minimizing one’s own visibility or audibility, for the sake of something bigger and someone else, could ever be faithful or reasonable. A doubt that the general public could be trusted to shoulder significant sacrifice. A doubt that anything I do or you do would ever make a difference.

When this cloud of doubt gets so thick that it eclipses both the sun and the moon, it is time to hear again the Ascension gospel. Such a thick cloud comes from a theological weather system

in which the cold front of wrong has chased out the warm front of right,

in which the low pressure of the fall has displaced
the high pressure of creation,

in which the radical postmodern apotheosis of difference has silenced the liberal late modern openness to shared experience, to promise and future, to common faith, common ground, common hope,

in which the cream of liberalism has curdled into the sour milk of radicalism,

in which the creation is seen from the cavern of the fall, not the fall from the prairie of creation.

This is not a “pastor problem”, but a pastoral problem. It is not a political conflict, it is a theological contrast. It is not a matter of church coloration or religious style, it is a matter of creation, of God’s creation and the truth about creative goodness. Just how balanced is your balance between creation and fall?

There are for sure a lot of things wrong. But there are also, and more surely still, a lot of things right. Hear the good news. The gospel ends in joy. You are witnesses of the goodness of God, witnesses who come from a long line of people who joyfully bless, and routinely give great thanks. “Faith is an event expressing the conviction that the things not yet seen are more real than those that can be seen” (L Keck). As you, as I, as we together walk toward our last adventure, our own look over Jordan, it is this thanksgiving, a great thanksgiving, which carries us.

Marilyn Robinson’s novel, Gilead, is about a man who rightly balances creation and fall. We end this sermon, a call to thanksgiving, as she ended her novel, another call to great thanksgiving:

I love the prairie! So often I have seen the dawn come and the light flood over the land and everything turn radiant at once, that word ‘good’ so profoundly affirmed in my soul that I am amazed I should be allowed to witness such a thing. There may have been a more wonderful first moment ‘when the morning stars sang together and all the sons of God shouted for joy’, but for all I know to the contrary, they still do sing and shout, and they certainly might well. Here on the prairie there is nothing to distract attention from the evening and the morning, nothing on the horizon to abbreviate or to delay. Mountains would seem an impertinence from that point of view.”