Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Last Epiphany A

Homily preached at Middle and Upper School Chapel at Saint Andrew's Episcopal School.

Exodus 24:12-18; Psalm 121; Matthew 17:1-9

One of the first things I learned as a camp counselor in the Blue Ridge mountains of North Carolina was that I’m not very good at mountain climbing. During staff training, we went on an overnight campout like the ones we’d be leading all summer. We hiked up hill and down, along wide grassy paths and narrow rocky ones, learning all the trails through the woods.

I had never been on a campout like that before, and while I thought the mountains were breathtakingly beautiful, I was having second thoughts about being able to identify poisonous snakes, light campfires in the rain, tie the knots I needed to know, and do it all with homesick campers clinging to my hands. I had never been on a hike like that before, carrying a loaded pack taller than I was, negotiating footholds in roots and rocks and tall grass.

Late in the afternoon, we started on the trail up to Eagle Rock. The climb wasn’t too bad at first – a winding old dirt road that nature had begun to reclaim, threading its way uphill at a gentle angle. Then, at a point it would take me all summer to find on my own, we turned suddenly off the road and started climbing straight up, it seemed, until the path curved around and rose at a sharper angle still.

About halfway up, I knew I had to stop. My face was red and hot from both exertion and embarrassment – no one else seemed as weary as I was. I asked if we could rest for just a moment, and so brought all twenty or so folks to a complete halt. We breathed a little, and drank a little water. I dreaded the moment we’d start up again, but we were at that point where it would be just as difficult to go back down as it would be to keep climbing, so…as we inched our way up the mountain, a few folks stayed close by, cheering me on from behind, and pointing out the easiest path in front. How strange, I thought, that I didn’t notice them when all I could think about was how hard the climb was. But there they were, the same folks who had been with me all along. In the end, the only reason any of us made it up to Eagle Rock was because we helped one another climb.

And when we got there, what a mountaintop experience! The air up there is pure – you can breathe deeply. The sound up there is the sound of the sky itself, of rushing wind and sparkling silence. The view up there… the view – you can see, I mean really see. It is illuminating.

For more ages than we can count, people have climbed mountains to get a new perspective, to literally broaden their horizons, to keep from getting so caught up in the details of life that the miss the big picture of which their life is a part. For more ages than we can count, people of faith have climbed mountains to meet God. Our scriptures are full of such stories, two of which we heard read this morning. Come up to me on the mountain, God said to Moses. It was not the first time Moses climbed a mountain for God, and it would not be the last. Jesus, too, was an avid mountain climber, often preaching from hilltops and retreating to hilltops to pray, to meet God. They went up on a very high mountain where they could be alone, we heard from Matthew’s gospel.

In a lifetime of sermons (which, don’t worry, you won’t hear today), no preacher could ever hope to unravel all the mysteries of the mountaintop experience that happened on that day, an experience that Christians call the Transfiguration. Jesus was completely changed, Matthew writes. His face was shining like the sun, and his clothes became white as light. It is a story about what happened to Jesus on a mountaintop, but it is also in part a story about people like you and me, a story that illumines our lives as well.

First, the story reminds us that we all need to climb mountains from time to time. We all need to reach a height from which we can see where we’ve come from and where we’re going to and what the path in-between looks like. We all need to leave the valley where we’re surrounded by the details of life and get to where we can view the big picture of which our lives are a part. On his mountaintop capped in glory and flame, Moses experienced a God who, despite such details as doubt and sin, was determined to set in stone a covenant, a big picture of faithfulness. And on their mountaintop, the disciples experienced Jesus who, despite such details as being every bit as human as they were, was also the God who made heaven and earth.

On the mountain we are able to see for miles around. We see that our lives take place in a much larger and more significant picture than whether we get from point A to point B, or succeed at a particular task or accomplish a particular goal. We see that the dead end streets and the roads that seem to lead us in circles are not the only ways open to us. We see that the endpoint of our journey is every bit as real as the point where we feel stuck on the side of a mountain, that beyond every obstacle is open road, that not every bridge is out. In our uphill battle lives, we all need to climb mountains, to take time out to meet God.

Second, the story reminds us that change doesn’t always mean becoming something we are not. It can also mean becoming more of something we already are. Jesus was not any different coming down than mountain than he was going up it – he always had God’s glory shining in him. If anything changed, it’s that the disciples saw him in a new light. They saw more of who Jesus already was, and it made them more of who they already were, because it wouldn’t be long before they were carrying that light out into the world, shouting it from mountaintops, and bringing it into the darkest corners of the deepest valleys.

And finally third, the story teaches us how to climb mountains, and how to go back down. Jesus took with him Peter and the brothers James and John. Mountain climbing is much easier when you have someone behind you and in front of you – I learned that all those summers ago. One of the greatest privileges of standing where I am right now is being able to look out and see the faces of so many people who are helping one another climb mountains during this particularly hilly school year. Sometimes we’re the ones cheering on from behind. Sometimes we’re the ones in front searching out the surest path. Sometimes we’re the ones struggling for breath.

In the end, the only reason any of us make it up to the top, the only reason any of us get to see the big picture, the only reason any of us become more of who we already are, is because we help one another climb. Amen.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Week of Prayer for Christian Unity

Homily preached at Middle and Upper School Chapel at Saint Andrew's Episcopal School

1 Thessalonians 5:12-17; Psalm 34:1-6; Luke 8:1-7

The Lord be with you…

…and also with you
, right? Those words, I think, are encoded in the DNA of every Episcopalian and learned right after your ABC’s if you attend an Episcopal School. In fact, the saying goes (it was Garrison Keillor, I think), “You may be an Episcopalian if Obi Wan Kenobi tells Luke Skywalker, May the force be with you and you automatically respond right to the TV screen, and also with you.”

The Lord be with you…and also with you. There are so many words Episcopalians know on a cellular level, common to all Christians, common to our worship here. Our Father, who art in heaven…the word of the Lord…thanks be to God…as it was in the beginning, is now, and will be forever…

The Episcopal Church’s Book of Common Prayer contains these and many more words, providing a common language for prayer…until you come across words like the ones by which we thank God for the bread and wine of communion, rendering unto thee most hearty thanks for the innumerable benefits procured unto us by the same. Or the one that makes me think my lisp from elementary school is back, for so thou didst ordain when thou createdst me. There is nothing common in the English language about spelling a word with a “dst” at the end!

Now, before you go and tell my bishop that your chaplain has prayerbook issues, let me explain that prayers such as these, although used less and less commonly today in favor of more contemporary language also included in the book…these old prayers also contain such delightful images as we have erred and strayed from thy ways like lost sheep, and my favorite, here we offer and present unto thee, O Lord, our selves, our souls and bodies, to be a reasonable, holy, and living sacrifice unto thee. Truly lovely lines, I think, but not exactly common language these days, right?

This week marks the 100th celebration of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. During this annual event, Catholics and Orthodox and Protestants and Anglicans and all others who claim the Christian faith join together in praying for common ground to stand upon, for a common mission of spreading the good news of Jesus Christ. This week also marks the 181st annual gathering of Episcopalians in Mississippi to shape our ministries for the coming year. Sometimes, when we come together, it feels like we need a Week of Prayer for Episcopalian Unity.

The thing is, even within one church, one community, one organization, one institution, one family…wherever two or more people are gathered, we can find ourselves lacking a common language. Words that feel as natural as breathing to one person may be foreign to another. I learned this when we lived in New York, where no one knew how to spell y’all or had ever eaten grits or rotel, bless their hearts (they didn't know what that meant, either!). Even familiar words of faith can carry different meanings for different people, words like sin and salvation and made in God’s image.

Throw in a diversity of faith traditions and spiritual practices, such as we are blessed with here at Saint Andrews, and it can be even more difficult to communicate. How can we pray a common prayer when we don’t speak the same language? Never stop praying, we heard Paul say to the Thessalonians. But that’s not the issue – the issue is, how do we begin praying?

It depends on what we think unity looks like, I think. If unity means uniformity, so that everyone believes exactly the same thing, and worships exactly the same way, then we’ll never get what we’re praying for. But if unity means finding common ground in the midst of diversity, then we can begin to pray.

The prayerbook defines prayer as responding to God, by thought and by deeds, with or without words. Prayer is more than what we do in this common space, more than what we read from a book or a screen, more than what we say at the dinner table or lying in bed at night or in the minutes before the big test. Prayer is not just a thing we do – it is a way we live, open to the presence of God working in us and around us and through us.

When Paul encourages the Thessalonians to never stop praying, he is not telling them to kneel day in and out with their hands folded and their heads bowed. There are sacred times and places for such prayer in all faith traditions, but Paul wants people to know that every moment of life is sacred when it is lived recognizing and celebrating the God-given worth of all people. Try to get along with each other, Paul writes. That's prayer. Show great respect, encourage those who are left out, help the weak, be patient, don’t be hateful, be good, always be joyful, never stop praying.

There is a Christian saint who made his life a prayer in this way. In the morning when he woke up, he would clasp his hands together and begin, “Dear God…” and then go about his day. In the evening, just before bed, he would clasp his hands together again and say, “Amen.”

We may not always speak a common language of prayer when we are in this CPA turned sacred space. But we do speak a common language of prayer out there through our shared language of academics, by which many among us will solve issues of social concern, cure devastating diseases, or teach future generations. We speak a common language of prayer through our shared language of service, by which many among us will assist those whom the world has forgotten. We speak a common language of prayer through our shared language of community, by which we learn that we never stand alone, and that our combined efforts are greater than sum of our individual efforts. We speak a common language of prayer through our shared language of diversity, by which we learn that each of us brings to the table our own unique gifts and stories and languages that enrich our common life.

And so, The Lord be with you…Let us pray…Dear God…