Being Found

Homily for Sunday, January 6, 2019
The Epiphany
Matthew 2:1–12
Preached at St John’s, Newtonville

Rainer_Maria_Rilke2C_1900As a young man in his early twenties, the poet Rainer Maria Rilke traveled with his girlfriend and her husband to Russia.  Whether it was the Russian land or people, or Rilke’s encounter with the Orthodox Church, or perhaps his travel arrangements that led to an extraordinary burst of creativity, we don’t know.  What we do know is that upon his return, over the course of 25 days, Rilke wrote his Book of Hours, 67 poems that grew out of his prayer at that time.  They are wonderful!  Here are the openings lines of #45:

You come and go. The doors swing closed
ever more gently, almost without a sound.
Of all who move through quiet houses,
you are the quietest.  (I, 45)

newton north tigerBut I don’t want to begin with Rilke.  Nor do I want to begin with the story of the three wise men we’ve just heard.  Rather—perhaps it’s because we’re here at 297 Lowell Ave., right across from Newton North High School— I want to begin with tigers [the mascot of  NNHS].

In “Man-Eaters,” an online article from The Ringer (September 25, 2018), Brian Phillips writes of going on safari in India to see tigers:

Of the twelve tigers I saw in India, one might have been a ghost; two were in water, eight were on land, and one was sleeping in a tree…

Phillips might have seen more tigers except that:

In the presence of a tiger what most astonishes is not its size or its power or even its beauty but its capacity to disappear.  I’m sure you’ve heard about the stealth of tigers on nature shows.  It’s no preparation for the reality.  You will not see a tiger that does not choose to be seen…  The way a tiger arrives is, there is nothing there.  Then a tiger is there.

The best way to see a tiger, says Phillips, is to pay attention to the “shiver” in the jungle.

tiger drawingThe arrival of a tiger, it’s true, is often preceded by moments of rising tension, because a tiger’s presence changes the jungle around it… Birdcalls darken.  Small deer call softly to each other.  Herds do not run but drift into shapes that suggest some emerging group consciousness of an escape route.  A kind of shiver seems to run through everything…  The best way to find a tiger is to switch off your engine and listen.  You might then hear, from a distance, the subtle changes in pitch and cadence that indicate the boundary of [the tiger’s arrival] zone.

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herod and the wise menKing Herod was a tiger living in a jungle.  In his world of palace intrigue, Herod could surely commiserate with Shakespeare’s Henry IV: “Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown.”  Like Henry’s, Herod’s senses were keenly attuned.  So “When the wise men from the east came to Jerusalem asking, Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews?’”  Herod “switched off his engine and listened:”

He inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born…  They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea…”

But since “you will not see a tiger that does not choose to be seen,” the wise men did not see Herod, who slyly and cunningly

sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.”

Herod had felt the shiver.

William_Holman_Hunt_-_The_Finding_of_the_Saviour_in_the_Temple

The Finding of Jesus in the Temple, William Holman Hunt

But just as Herod is wild, so also is there something wild about Jesus—Jesus is not so easily caught.  And though Herod might be wild in a tiger kind of way, ready to pounce, claw and devour, Jesus is wild—and perhaps it’s because we’re here, at 297 Lowell Ave., just upstairs from the Bowen Preschool, that I’m going to say that— [Jesus is wild] and not so easily caught in a child kind of way.  Let me explain:

“When I was a little girl, I hid in church,” writes Trish Harrison Warren (now a priest in the Church of England).

My best friend Amanda was the preacher’s youngest daughter.  We hated to leave each other after the worship service.  So we hatched a plan to hide under a table in the corner of the fellowship hall… I’m not sure what we’d imagined our parents doing as we grabbed hands after the dismissal and beelined to our hiding spot.  (Did we think they’d give up on finding us and leave?)  My parents said they found me within twenty minutes… but in my memory we were there for hours.  I remember Amanda’s auburn hair falling in ribbons on the white tile as we huddled on our knees, hidden under the table, the happy murmur of the crowd swelling under the organ postlude; later, the grown-up shins with pleated slacks and shiny black shoes walking toward the table alerted us that our gig was up.  We were found.  [From “True Story,” in the Spring, 2018, issue of “The Point.”]

Hiding_tigerIf it is true about a tiger that what most astonishes is not its power or its beauty but its capacity to disappear, so is it true about Jesus that what often most astonishes is not his power or even his beauty, but his capacity to disappear.  Jesus loves to disappear, he loves to go and hide.  Jesus loves to go and hide not for any reasons of cunning or fear; Jesus loves to hide because he wants to take our hand and beeline to a place where he might more fully show us his glory.  Jesus loves to hide because Jesus loves to be seen.  There is so much more that Jesus wants to show us, that Jesus wants to tell us.  So Jesus moves quietly, so very quietly, not only to encourage us to look more closely, but also so that we might learn to look past how we usually see, past our assumptions of what we think we should see, when we “see” Jesus.  For, as Rilke puts it later in the same poem: “We become so accustomed to you, we no longer look up when your shadow falls.”  And so Jesus comes and goes ever more gently, “of all who move through quiet houses the quietest,” hoping that we will “switch off our engine and listen.”  Hoping that we will look carefully, hoping that we will hear his invitation and take his hand and go off and hide—with him!  “Come away to a deserted place,” he says in Mark.  Or, “arise… and come away… my love, my fair one,” he says in the Song of Songs.

When we are ready, if we allow ourselves, we can—to borrow from that lovely poem by Frances Chesterton (and that the choir will sing momentarily)—come to the “Little door,” where “we need not wander more,” but can

…enter with our gift;
Our gift of finest gold…
Myrrh to be strewn about his bed;
Incense in clouds about his head…
Gifts for His children, terrible and sweet;
Touched by such tiny hands,
and Oh such tiny feet.

shooting-starOn this Feast of the Epiphany this demure and quiet Jesus, invites us to switch off our engines and listen.  It is the “tigers” of this world whose stealth causes birdcalls to darken, small deer to call softly to each other, and a shiver to run through the jungle.  But Jesus moves even more quietly—“of all who move… the quietest”—who, when he shows himself, shows not teeth and claws but “tiny hands and Oh such tiny feet.”  Who leads us to a place, perhaps hidden, where we can enter, and kneel down, and draw close, and offer gifts, and worship, and where twenty minutes feels like forever in a good way…  And where we can be “found.”  It’s what our hearts really want, isn’t it, to be found with this Jesus, and to kneel down and worship?  Why not this Epiphany allow ourselves to go there?  Why not allow ourselves to take his hand and to go with him under the table—or to a deserted place, or through the “little door”— and to feel not a shiver but profound satisfaction, not a rising tension but increasing joy.  Which always precedes and follows Jesus wherever he goes, and wherever we let him in.

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Drawn to Jesus

Homily for Sunday, December 30, 2018
First Sunday After Christmas Day
John 1:1–18

Prairie School aerial mh 001.jpgIn my hometown of Racine, Wisconsin, is a school designed by Frank Lloyd Wright.  The hallways of this school are both beautiful and peculiar.  Beautiful, because the colors, textures and light all work together to make these hallways beautiful places to be.  (They were designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, after all!)  And these hallways are also peculiar.  There’s almost not a straight hallway in the place; almost all the hallways are curved!  Wright wanted people to be drawn forward to see what might be around the corner.  For the most part the only windows in the hallways are narrow, horizontal windows high up at the ceiling line.  Full length windows are in the classrooms, where Wright wanted the abundant light to attract people into the space.  And the ceilings in the hallways are particularly low—maybe seven feet?  Wright wanted people to move through the smaller, tighter-feeling spaces of hallways and into the rooms, where ceilings were higher and rooms felt more spacious.  With their colors and textures—and their curves, low ceilings and high windows—these hallways are places at once beautiful places to linger, and at the same time they urge people onward.

Reading the opening 18 verses from John’s Gospel—which we heard today (and that we hear every year on the First Sunday after Christmas Day)—the effect is a little like walking through the hallways of that Frank Lloyd Wright-designed school: these verses are at once a beautiful place to be, and at the same time they urge us onward.

Dinamismo di un ciclista GM5These lines are beautiful!  The “colors” and “textures” of these verses are all drawn from the Old Testament.  Here we see images from Genesis and creation: “In the beginning was the Word.”  In these lines we find the Law: “The Law indeed was given through Moses.”  We see the prophets: “There was a man sent from God whose name was John.”  In these opening lines we see the “colors” and “textures” of Hebrew monotheism, of the recurring Hebrew theme of prophets being called and rejected, and of the belief that one day all the world will be drawn to Israel.  These lines are a veritable “symphony” of Hebrew theology.

Though these lines are beautiful and we may want to linger, these lines also urge us on.  In these lines John speaks of “the true light, which enlightens everyone,” and who will someday draw all people to himself.  Here John speaks of “being born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God”—something new is happening here, something that catches our attention.  And—like a “curved hallway” kind of tease—John suggests that, if we allow ourselves to be drawn in and to read on, we might discover the one whom “no one has ever seen,” “God the only Son, who has made [God] known.”

These verses are at once a beautiful place to be, and at the same time they urge us on.

35235794983_8a2890ac9f_bToday, the First Sunday after Christmas Day is a “curved hallway” kind of time.  In this time we both savor where we are as we celebrate the Incarnation—with its beautiful readings, images, decorations and hymns—and… we also look forward to the Epiphany (on January 6).  I wonder if, as we are “in-between,” we might allow ourselves to both enjoy the new life that God has given us in Christ and… at the same time—allow ourselves to get curious about what God might wish to show us, the open space into which God wishes to bring us.  Our God is always birthing, always creating; always wanting to bring us to a place where God might more fully show us God’s glory.  And our hearts are most satisfied when we allow ourselves to see, be drawn to and follow this Jesus, who both loves us where we are, and also beckons us on.

Looking on the Infant Jesus

Homily for December 24, 2018
Christmas Eve
Luke 2:1–20

Nativity stained glass-St. Mary Star of the Sea Duluth MN

The Nativity, stained glass, St. Mary Star of the Sea, Duluth, Minn.

In “Five Minutes That Will Make You Love Classical Music,” a New York Times piece from this past September, the Times asked eighteen different people—critics, composers, performers, conductors—which five minutes of classical music would they play to help somebody fall in love with classical music.  On the list were pieces such as the Finale from Stravinsky’s Firebird suite, the final Trio from Strauss’ Der Rosenkavalier, and “Liebestod,” from Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, among others.

 

In addition to these “warhorses” that I might have expected were others that caught me by surprise.  From Ravel’s Shéhérazade was the ridiculously beautiful aria “L’indifférent.”  It’s absolutely gorgeous, with a text perhaps too racy to share from the pulpit on Christmas Eve…  Anna Clyne’s Lavender Rain, a piece for violin written after the death of her mother, is 4 ½ minutes of music so simple—an ascending and then descending scale, basically, with a few chords for color—that it shouldn’t move one to tears, but it does.  And Couperin’s Les Barricades Mystérieuses, in an arrangement for winds, is a playful series of dissonance and resolution that, again, is so simple that it shouldn’t be so beautiful, but it is.

And then there a piece that completely caught me by surprise; I’d never heard of it: Vingt Regards sur l’enfant Jésus, “Twenty ‘glances’ [or ‘looks’ or ‘contemplations’] on the infant Jesus,” a piano work by the idiosyncratic 20th-century French composer, Olivier Messiaen.  A quick Google search filled me in on the twenty “looks”:

Theme_de_dieu

Thème de Dieu, from Vingt Regards sur l’enfant Jésus

There is the “Regard du Père,” the “Look of the Father;” the “Regard de la Vierge,” the “Look of the Virgin;” and the “Regard des Anges,” the “Look of the Angels.”  There are also “looks” of “the Star,” “the Cross,” and “of Silence…” all looking—just looking—on the infant Jesus.

 

Olivier_Messiaen_1930

Olivier Messiaen, 1930

Then there is “Le Baiser de l’Enfant Jésus,” “The Kiss of the Infant Jesus.”  The movement is so “French” and so “Messiaen.”  It’s quirky, unlike anything anybody else was writing—think “1950’s Citroën” except music (and not a car)—and it is so unusual that it shouldn’t be but it is exquisitely beautiful.  “Le Baiser” is more or less a theme and variations, with a repeating, four-measure ground of dissonant yet lush chords.  It starts softly like a lullaby in the lower middle of the piano’s register and gradually builds, both in volume and expanse of register, as though watching Jesus sleep then maybe shift, then begin to wake; then begin to be hungry or to have gas, and then to be truly awake with a full-throated, piercing newborn wail.  (Those who are parents, you’ve been there.)  And then Our Lady must have made playful attempts to soothe him, maybe picking him up and rocking him and making cooing sounds, for the music turns briefly whimsical, with trills and playful melodies running free in the upper register.  But Mary is a new mother, you see, and doesn’t quite have it, so Jesus slowly but surely works up a full head of steam before cutting loose with a massive, glorious tantrum: crashing, dissonant chords and jagged rhythms, all over the piano.  At which point Our Lady must have figured it out—maybe nursing him, or holding him just so—for the music gradually calms and returns to the ease of its opening lullaby-like swing.  And somewhere along the way—I can’t tell from the music—our Lady (or Joseph, or both) must have given him “un baiser,” a kiss.

 

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If there is a word that most befits the Incarnation, the Nativity of Our Lord, that we celebrate this evening, it is the word “let.”  At every step of the way leading up to the birth of Jesus, human beings did what we usually find it so difficult to do: we “let.”  Mary let the angel approach.  She let herself “ponder” the angel’s greeting.  She let herself imagine what it might be like for “the Holy Spirit to come upon [her], and the power of the Most High [to] overshadow [her].”  Mary said to the angel: “Here am I, the servant of the Lord.  Let it be to me according to your word.”  And Joseph, too, “let.”  Joseph allowed himself to dream; he let himself hear the angel’s word; he let himself take Mary as his wife despite her pregnancy. And the innkeeper, shepherds and wise men likewise let.  The innkeeper let the holy family stay in the manger; the shepherds let themselves be drawn and “make haste” to find “Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger;” the wise men let themselves be led by the star, and they let themselves kneel down and “pay him homage.”  At every step of the way leading up to Jesus’ birth, human beings let; we let God be God, and ourselves to be human.

Crypte_de_l'église_de_Gargilesse-Les_Rois_Mages-20120429

L’adoration des Rois Mages, Crypte de l’église de Gargilesse

Whether we know it or not, those of us here this evening follow in the footsteps of Mary and Joseph, and of the innkeeper, shepherds and wise men.  It is not by mistake that we are here this evening; each of us has let ourselves come.  Like Mary, we let God approach and invite us. Like Mary, we let our hearts ponder God’s invitation.  Like Mary, we let ourselves imagine what it might be like to be here, and we came.  Like Joseph, we allowed ourselves to hear God’s words and did not dismiss them.  Like the innkeeper, we let ourselves make room (in our schedule).  Like the shepherds, we let ourselves be drawn to be here.  Like the wise men, we let ourselves come to worship.  We have done so much to be here tonight; we have let God draw us here; we have let ourselves accept God’s invitation.

Having done so much and come so far, I wonder if we might allow ourselves to take one further step.  I wonder if we might let ourselves do as did “le Père,” “la Vierge,” and “les Anges” (the Father, the Virgin and the angels); as did the Star, the Cross and the Silence.  I wonder if we might let ourselves look on the infant Jesus.  Just look.

We’ve all seen infants.  And if we are parents, we have first-hand experience of infants.  What do you notice, as you let yourself look on the infant Jesus?  What do you feel?  What is it like for you, to let yourself just look on this little one?

It will take some time and space to look on the infant Jesus.  Maybe, as you are visiting and need some time to yourself—or as you have visitors and need some time to yourself—take a few minutes in a quiet place and allow yourself to look—just look—on the infant Jesus.

black-eared-wheatear-at-Ipsilou-Monastery

Black-eared wheatear.  In addition to music, the composer Olivier Messiaen was an ornithologist; he traveled extensively to listen to and notate birdsong.

When I allow myself to look on the infant, a curious thing happens: as I look on the infant as he is in the manger or in Mary’s or Joseph’s arms—or as he gets hungry or has gas or squirms or cries—I find that he comes to be born in me, too; he enters into me.  Which is just what God wants to do, if I let God; and which is just what my heart wants, too, if I admit it.  Perhaps this is because, as Ignatius of Loyola tells us, whenever we let ourselves come to look upon Jesus, Jesus is so attractive, so compelling, that we come to love him.  To know Jesus is to love him.

 

I wonder, what is the “look” that you have on the infant Jesus?

We have already allowed ourselves to come so far, allowing God to draw us and allowing our hearts to respond.  Why not let yourself to take a step further, to let yourself look on the infant Jesus—just look.  And allow yourself to notice what you notice, to feel what you feel, and to do or say what seems right to do or say.  For there is nothing more satisfying, nothing that gives our hearts more joy, more peace, than to let ourselves be drawn to, and come to love, this little one.

Gettin’ ready

Homily for Sunday, December 23, 2018
Advent 4C
Luke 1:39-55

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Photograph by David Slater

His cheeks were fat—really fat!  And if my memory serves, he was wearing a pint-sized red Hawaiian shirt out of whose short sleeves protruded stubby, roly-poly arms, with dimples so deep it looked as though there were rubber bands around his wrists.  We have photos in an album somewhere of Shaw at about 6 months old at the monarch butterfly reserve just north of Santa Barbara on the California coast.  He was 54th percentile for height, but 99th for weight, and friends would jokingly ask if the Cornhuskers’ coach had called yet.  I remember butterflies alighting on him, on us, and on the eucalyptus trees.  Swarms of butterflies; thousands of butterflies!  But even then, the locals said, there were fewer than they remembered.  But I recently read an article that makes me wonder if any remain at all. Continue reading

Art of the Anti-Memoir

Homily for Sunday, December 16, 2018
Advent 3C
Philippians 4:4–7

pensive writer-Kulikov_Writer_E.N.Chirikov_1904In “The Art of Self: Autobiography in the Age of Narcissism,” an article in Harper’s Weekly in May of 1994, author William Gass skewers the genre.  Of autobiographies he says:

Welcome to the extraordinary drama of lied-about ordinary life… The autobiographer tends to do partials, to skip the dull parts and circle the pits of embarrassment…  Are there any motives… that aren’t tainted with conceit or a desire for revenge or a wish for justification?  To halo a sinner’s head?  To puff an ego already inflated past safety? Continue reading

An Ordinary, Corrupt Human Life

Homily for Sunday, December 9, 2018
Advent 2C
Malachi 3:1–4

“The Lord of hosts… is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap… he will purify the descendants of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, until they present offerings to the Lord in righteousness.”

Santa-christmas-card-vintageThis past week my wife received a Christmas card on the cover of which was a stick-figure girl, crayon in hand, who has just written a letter to Santa:

Dear Santa,
I am writing to tell you that I have been naughty,
and it was worth it!
You fat, old, judgmental bastard.

Continue reading

A Window into the Life of God

Homily for Sunday, December 2, 2018
Advent 1C
I Thessalonians 3:9–13

British beehiveIn World History of Beekeeping and Honey Hunting—a nearly 700-page tome (about bees and beekeeping)—Eva Crane describes how through the ages humans, out of curiosity, have attempted to see into a hive.  Aristotle tried cutting a window into his hive, but the bees obscured it with propolis, a sticky resin made from buds and sap.  Pliny describes hives fitted with a semi-transparent stone that was probably mica, (and he charmingly opined, from what he could see, that bees in the hive do three things: some build, others polish, and still others make dinner).  In 1653 the Rev. William Mewe built an octagonal hive on different levels, each fitted with a small window sealed by a hinged shutter.  In 1655 the diarist John Evelyn described a transparent apiary belonging to one Dr. Wilkins of Oxford, complete with dials, little statues and vanes, though it is likely that Evelyn’s imagination got ahead of himself, as large sheets of glass were not produced in England for another few decades.  When they were, the so-called “observation hive” allowed humans to see, in a single comb bound on either side with a pane of glass, the queen in her chamber, her attendants gathered round, workers coming and going, or storing pollen, or making wax or building comb. Continue reading