Monday, August 11, 2008

St. Clare

Today our full faculty and staff at St. Andrew's School, where I am chaplain, gathered for the first time since last May. Endings and beginnings mingle in this place, weaving a tapestry of "life goes on".

Song of Solomon 2:10-13; Psalm 63:1-8; Luke 12:32-37

Once upon a time, many hundreds of years ago, there lived in the town of Assisi a young woman, beautiful and gracious, the daughter of nobility. From her devout mother she had learned kindness and faith. From her knighted father she had learned courage and fortitude. Betrothed to a young man carefully chosen to bring her family even greater honor, she might have looked forward to a long life of courtly comforts, lacking nothing a gentried heart might desire.

But the young woman’s heart was restless, desirous of a treasure she could not name. Until one day, deep in the somber season of Lent, she listened to the preaching of a mendicant monk, proclaiming the good news, celebrating the sister- and brotherhood of all people, and calling all people to follow in the footsteps of Jesus Christ. Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away… Moved by his words, young woman laid her silks and jewels on the altar and committed her long life to profound poverty, lacking nothing her Christ-filled heart ever desired. For your lovingkindness is better than life itself…

The woman’s name was Clare, and today is her feast day on our calendar of saints. Her once upon a time story of arising, of following, of discovering true worth, of finding her heart’s desire, of ending one chapter of a life in order to come away to where a new one begins… Clare’s story has lived on happily ever after, and many faithful on this day honor her as the patron saint of – sigh – well, not new beginnings or treasures of the heart or those who commit their lives to serving the poor. Clare is the patron saint of television.

Who says a 13th century saint can’t be relevant today?!

It seems that once when Clare was ill and unable to attend mass, she gazed at the wall from her bed and was able to see there images of the service, and to hear the priest at prayer. Episcopalians do not ordinarily invoke the saints to help us in our time of need, but next time the cable goes out, now you know where to turn!

As I began writing this reflection, my television at home was showing the grand opening ceremonies of the Olympics, marking the beginning of one of the most extraordinary things we do on this earth, when we celebrate all at once our diversity and our one-ness, our prowess and our graciousness, our courage and our faith. Commentators noted that China was celebrating a new chapter in its life, that women athletes were being recognized for the first time by some nations, and that some nations participating in the parade did not even exist four years ago. We heard throughout the evening the remarkable stories of once upon a time when a young woman broke the world record in her sport, when a young man bravely finished a race despite an injury, when a team against all odds went home with the gold. What once upon a time stories would be told of these Olympic games? the commentators wondered. We will have to turn on our televisions and watch and listen…

That is what Jesus urges his disciples to do in our gospel reading this morning – well, perhaps with the television off. Watch and listen, he says. Be dressed for action and have your lamps lit, be like those who are waiting… so that they may open the door for [the master] as soon as he comes and knocks. Surely Jesus told this little parable lightly, an expectant expression on his face, for he knew that if the disciples were watching and listening closely enough, they would realize that the master was already among them. Blessed are they, Jesus went on. Truly I tell you, he will fasten his belt and have them sit down to eat, and he will come and serve them. When they would later gather around a table in an upper room, if the disciples were watching and listening closely enough, they would realize that it was indeed the master, the one through whom all things were made, the one who emptied himself to be born in our likeness, the one who came not to be served but to serve… If they were watching and listening closely enough, they would realize just who it was that served their meal of bread and wine that night, who served himself to them that they might become his Body in the world.

If they were watching and listening. If. Of course they, like we, were easily distracted by their doubts and fears, their worries and what-if’s, their ambition and their weariness. They…we…easily fill our days with more than we could ever hope to watch or listen to if we had a thousand eyes and a thousand ears.

Do not be afraid, little flock, Jesus assured his disciples, and so he assures us. Do not be afraid, for it is God’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. It is God’s good pleasure, God’s heart’s desire, to place among us and within us and all around us experiences of life lived out of love rather than fear, wonder rather than worry, courage rather than weariness. We do not have to look far. We do not have to listen hard. It’s just that the kingdom of God doesn’t look or sound like anything with which the world tries to entice us.

Clare and those who joined her order took among their vows a vow of absolute poverty, selling their possessions and the things that possessed them, sweeping away distinctions of class and privilege, embracing a life in which their only true possession was the gift of God’s good pleasure, a kingdom worth more than any dark or sparkly thing that might distract. “They say we are too poor,” Clare remarked, when the pope himself tried to lessen the severity of their vow. “They say we are too poor, but can a heart which possesses the infinite God be truly called poor?”

In this community, at St. Andrew’s, with our covered walkways and carefully-tended courtyards, we live something of a cloistered life, like Clare. We will soon return to our weekly (or, rather, alphabetical) rhythm of work and worship. We will experience at times the tensions of poverty and the blessings of abundance. We will welcome strangers and become friends. We will walk the wonder-filled way of being masters of our disciplines and yet servants who offer ourselves to others. We will look upon our community and our world and cherish both our diversity and our one-ness.

Will we sell the things that possess us, that distract us, that cover our eyes and ears? Will we look for and listen to the kingdom not just once upon a time but once and for all time in our midst? For where our treasure is, there will our hearts be also.

Clare is but one saint whose story is relevant today, if we watch and listen closely. For once upon a time, just this past year, there was at St. Andrew’s a young woman who rallied her friends to bring the prom to a classmate who was in the hospital. Once upon a time, just this past year, there was a close circle of young men who lost a friend and bravely stood together on a cold, sad day. Once upon a time, this year, there was a very young girl who was shy until a black and white rabbit made her smile. Once upon a time there was a faculty who over and again loved their students.

What once upon a time stories will be told of this year? I wonder. We will watch and listen, for God is calling, Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away. And so, we will begin at a new beginning. Once upon a time…