January 3, 2012

A Welcome Warning from a Dear Departed Friend at the Start of a New Year

I was brooding about an appropriate subject for my first post of 2012 when serendipity struck once again.

I stumbled upon the following sermon delivered by my good friend John Harper, the long-time rector of St. John's Church, Lafayette Square, Washington, DC. It was delivered on the Feast of the Epiphany -- January 6, 1991.

But first, a brief personal note. I was raised Catholic but abandoned religion in my late teens. I became a practicing Episcopalian in my 50s, when I was struggling to maintain my still-recent recovery from alcoholism. Today I'm somewhere between agnostic and atheist.

Nevertheless, I still find much to contemplate in John's sermon and -- at the start of 2012 -- its warning to "go home by another way." I hope you will, too.

The Inspired Warning

Christmas ends and Epiphany begins with a warning.   It was given to the wisemen in a dream.  It was a warning, which in Greek means "instructed by an oracle," not to return to Herod but to go home by another way.  The wisemen are a bridge between the story of Christmas and the expansion of Christianity into new territory, to new and different people which is what Epiphany represents. The wisemen come to represent all those who are led to Christ and are sent out as heralds in his name. They are warned, instructed, about embarking on a new and quite different journey, and the "epiphany" of the Gospel for all people emerging is the result.

Here you have the story of the way religious faith widens as peoples' experience widens; it is the reminder that we can never take things for granted or assume that what we have come to believe will always hold true in just the same way. The warning is to go out to new places and explore the many ways God shows himself.  Those ancient kings are called "wise" because they had the good sense to take the warning to heart.  
Going back by the old route would have meant death, for Herod was set to kill Jesus and probably the messengers who told him where he was to be found.  Ignoring the warning would also have caused them to miss new opportunities along the way, since the route they had come was familiar  and safe; in this case familiarity and safety could hinder the spiritual growth which began at the manger.

The warning then and now came from deep within their consciousness or their instincts or whatever ways people stumble upon the truth which turns them around and changes their lives. It was a warning that saved them, and it is still a warning that can save us from the stagnation of the familiar, from the narrowness of partial knowledge, and from a sense that what we may have felt at Christmas is going to last the rest of the year.

The warning, simply put, tells us that there is no guarantee that faith will hold together unless it is nourished by fresh experience and by the recognition that what was valid yesterday needs to be tested in light of what we feel today.  The "divine unrest" of the wisemen is an emotion which is good to recall as we, at the start of a new year, enriched by all the loveliness of Christmas and by the magic of its poetry, now find ourselves trudging on a new journey into the unknown year ahead.

Remember Alice in Wonderland's question of the Cheshire cat? "Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go?" she asks . To which the Cheshire cat replies, "That depends a good deal on where you want to go." "I don't much care," says Alice. "Then it doesn't matter which way you go."

In one sense, it doesn't matter which way you go so long as you start on the journey and refuse to remain in one place. But it does matter a great deal where you want to go if faith is your goal, more self-awareness, and a deeper consciousness of things holy.  Choose your way carefully, therefore, if you want to make a significant difference in the belief you now hold or the one which holds you.

We are free when we obey some inner voice, when we respond to some instinct or prompting, often a warning, that heads us in a new direction.We are truly free not just when we break away from some pattern or tradition, but when we listen to our hearts and minds telling us what is right. It will probably be a different voice, if it is really authentic, from the one we have heard before, which we shared in so sentimentally these last two weeks. It will be a voice that tells us there will be no abiding place for us to cling to, no single way by which the incarnate God we welcomed at Christmas can be known and loved.

John Cheever's devastating comment about his family's inability to stay the course is another kind of warning. "When I  remember my family," he wrote, "I always remember their backs. They were always indignantly leaving places.  They were always stomping out of concerts, sports events, theaters.  If Koussevitsky thinks I'll sit through that!  That umpire is a crook!  This play is filthy!  I didn't like the way the waiter looked at me!  They saw almost nothing to its completion, and that is the way I remember them, heading for an exit."

My plea this morning is that we not head for exits but for entrances, not turn our backs on what has happened whether it is painful or enriching, not walk out and away with nothing but disappointment. I urge us to look for entrances that will take us into a new dimension of spirituality, whether it is through some encounter here in church or in some relationship with another person or in some self-enlightenment that changes our perspective on things. Go home by a different route but make sure it is home you are heading for and not just another spiritual thrill which has no lasting power.

I can think of no better illustration of what I have been trying to say about looking for new religious experience than to remind you of a scene in Thorton Wilder's "Our Town" in which he probes with devastating power to alert us to the preciousness of every moment of life and to find new ways of finding a better way come where it may.

My reminder to you and to myself this new year is found in Emily's poignant words about how life's experiences go by so fast, the journeys we each take so rapid. "We don't have time to look at one another," Emily says . . . "Oh, earth," she cries, "you're too wonderful for anyone to realize you." Then she asks abruptly through her tears, "Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it?  -- every, every minute?"

The warning that comes to us today is this: realize life while you liive it, every, every minute as you travel. Realize life, regardless if how strange the place where you live may be, for in that very strangeness can be life and not death.  It is the way the reality of the Christmas Gospel manifests itself in wonderfully different ways.


Sisterkeith said...

Thank you John - an important message you shared with us. I am a believer in the saying: it isn't the destination - it is the journey that is important. I hope 2012 is a good journey for you.

John said...

Thanks!  I'll try to take the journey through the coming year one day at a time.