Monday, May 31, 2010

The Simon Chronicles -- Partie Deux


I am Simon.

The Cat.

I have asked my Chief of Staff to assist me in preparing this, ah, report.

It is a meditation on sleep, something humans beings seem to take much too lightly. But then, you are not Cats, are you?

"Sleep that knits up the ravelled sleave of care. The death of each day's life, sore labour's bath. Balm of hurt minds, great nature's second course, Chief nourisher in life's feast." -- Macbeth, Cat who allowed William Shakespeare to live with him and to use his name as the title of a "play."

If Cats are anything, we are professionals at sleeping. Our keen minds and highly honed bodies require, oh, about 20 hours of sleep a day.

"Life is too short to sleep on low thread-count
sheets." --
Prissy, the cat who allows Leah Stussy to
live with her.

We are such professionals that we can sleep in the most insalubrious of situations. Why, here I am shown sleeping in the driveway. This makes my Chief of Staff very nervous and she scolds me for it constantly. But of course I am always careful to sleep out of the way of the Big Moving Machines she and her assistant use. I am not an idiot.

But most of the time I sleep in one the many lovely places my Chief of Staff has prepared for me around my garden. She has nicely placed them in shady spots where I can doze while also keeping an ear turned to her whereabouts in the garden or the house. If she goes anywhere NEAR the cupboard where my treats are stored, I know it.

This chair is in the Chapel Garden. I often doze there in the early evenings while my Chief of Staff and her assistant have "drinks" in the garden. Why they don't just drink out of one of the fountains like I do is one of the mysteries of my life.

"And if tonight my soul may find her peace in sleep, and sink in good oblivion, and in the morning wake like a new-opened flower then I have been dipped again in God, and new-created." -- Sheik, Cat who allowed D.H. Lawrence to live with him.

Here I am dozing next to one of the statues of St. Francis, one of the rare human beings who really understood what God was doing when She created the animals first, THEN the humans.

"Consciousness: that annoying time between
naps." --
Unknown Cat

Here I am sleeping while keeping one ear on my Chief of Staff as she reads the newspapers, things human beings need to keep them informed about what is happening in their world. Cats, of course, need only their noses and their ears to know what is going on their THEIR world.

"There is no snooze button on a cat who wants breakfast." -- Cat owned by some really smart but anonymous human.

Cats can sleep anywhere, even amidst the toys that the human kittens my Chief of Staff adores insist on strewing about MY room in the house. I allow these two kittens to believe my room is their room.

"Without enough sleep, we all become tall two-year-olds." -- Bijou, Cat who allowed JoJo Jensen to live with him.

We Cats are masters at total relaxation, something humans seem to need "wine" or "drinks" to accomplish. Pity.

Sometimes I also guard my Chief of Staff's computer case when I sleep.

My Chief of Staff has prepared a basket for me that she calls "my" basket. It is one of the MANY places I sleep.

"O bed! O bed! delicious bed!That heaven upon earth to the weary head."-- Cissy, Cat who allowed Thomas Hood to live with her.

She has made the basket quite comfortable, and it is exactly the right size.

I also sleep in the "the boys" bed, although in reality it is MY bed. I graciously let the "grandchildren" think it is theirs.

See what I mean about the toys?

Sometimes I am so relaxed my Chief of Staff thinks I am about to fall off the bed. Silly thing. Cats never fall off beds.

Oh, all this dictation is exhausting. I need a nap.

"There is no hope for a civilization which starts each day to the sound of an alarm clock." Cat who was owned by an anonymous human.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Another of Bruce's sermons

I am privileged to host another of Bruce Coggin's sermons from All Saints, Wichita Falls, one of our displaced parishes. Bruce shares the care of this dynamic congregation with Maurine Lewis. This entire group is one of our diocese's greatest blessings.

A Sermon on Ascension Sunday
Preached at All Saints’, Wichita Falls, Texas
May 16, 2010

A casual observer—should we have one!—might be forgiven a little confusion about what’s going on here today. The service leaflet says Seventh Sunday of Easter; but the hymns and this sermon are all about Jesus’ ascension, the Ascension. So, which are we about this morning?
We’re about both, of course. This is in fact the seventh Sunday since Easter, but back in the good old days when everything was done right and everybody was happy, the Sunday after the Feast of the Ascension was called, logically enough, “The Sunday after Ascension Day.” Then they changed everything. You see, Ascension Day is always forty days after Easter, and that’s always a Thursday. Since they repealed the law that required people to go to church on major feasts, observation of Ascension has fallen off some little bit. I mean, how many of you greeted each other last Thursday with “Happy Ascension Day!”? (Don’t all stand at once.) Ascension was sort of like Transfiguration which always came on August 6th, a date which more likely reminds people of Hiroshima these days. So the folks in the liturgical movement quite wisely moved the observation to the last Sunday in Epiphany, and one of Jesus’ most epiphanic moments now gets a little more face time with the average Episcopalian. Now it’s Ascension’s turn, I reckon. The Roman Church, where it’s run from the top down and you can get a decision, already changed the name of this Sunday to Ascension Sunday. We’ll get there eventually, and that’s all good.
I say good because the ascension, Jesus’ ascension, is one of the most problematic yet critically important events in the Lord’s life on earth. I mean, it’s the end of the story, for one thing, and beyond that the implications of that . . . fact? myth? . . . are compellingly important. Let’s deal with the fact/myth bit first.

After Jesus’ resurrection, scripture tells us, he tarried—love that word—in his resurrected body for forty days, a number whose import I don’t need to elaborate. When you think about it, wouldn’t you expect Jesus would have spent those six weeks running a kind of victory lap, filling the disciples jam-full of teachings now that he had their attention? You’d expect big crowds, press conferences, riotous acclaim. I mean, everybody in town saw him executed, yet here he is! Funniest thing. After his resurrection, Jesus had very little to add beyond renewing his promise about the Holy Spirit and telling the disciples to get cracking. Then up and out. One wonders.

At any rate, on the fortieth day, a Thursday, scriptures tell us he and the disciples were outside the city and walked into one of those clouds that show up every now and then and open up and you just never can tell what’s going to happen. This time the disciples were, I’d bet, somewhat amazed to see Jesus just lean into that cloud and ride it right up to . . . well, way up in the sky, out of sight, gone. Foosh! There are lots of famous depictions of the moment. Jesus always has the same sappy look on his face, as if floating up into the empyrean was nothing unusual, and the disciples often express an unsettling serenity at the sight. I mean, that guy on TV, the magician who walks on water and through glass doors and all that? When people watch him, they take on about it somewhat. You’d expect the painters to show the disciples evincing some level of Oh my gawd!, wouldn’t you? But no, he just rode up into the sky and that was that. Never can tell when that’ll happen.
Now, folks, that’s a problem. Isn’t it?

When I was a graduate student some decades ago at the University of Dallas, a pretty conservative Catholic school, in a very upscale program that considered the vast realms of politics and literature all at once, we were summoned each semester to what the Great Ones in the faculty called a colloquium. What it was, they invited a Great One From Afar to come give a talk on some Big Topic, after which the faculty would listen as the students responded, asked questions, got asked questions. A real hot skillet dancing moment, believe me. The colloquia always took place in a smallish amphitheater auditorium, dais down at the bottom, seats rising in a semi-circle. The faculty sat up on the top seats, students in the middle, speaker on the stage—all except for Dr. Donald Cowan, the president of the university and a scientist. (His wife, Dr. Louise, really ran the place, and she sat up top. And watched. Like Madame Defarge) Well, one semester the Big Topic was nothing other than: The Ascension. Myth or fact? And what does it all mean, Alfie? The speaker was from California, I recall, and when we’d all settled in he took the mike and started out this way: “If at nine in the morning of Thursday, May 16, A.D. 33, the body of Jesus, whatever it was made of, left the earth headed for Heaven or wherever traveling at the speed of light, he would not until this good day have gotten beyond the boundaries of the known universe or even the reach of our most powerful telescopes. Surely by now, with all the sky watching we do, we’d have picked him up.” Then he stopped and glared up at us as if to say, “Howzabout them apples?”
As Mark Twain said, “a kind of black frost descended upon the chamber.” Nobody budged. Then Doctor Don leaned back in his front row seat, threw his arm across the back of the seat beside him, ran his eyes over the audience above him, smiled broadly, and said, “Oh, how innocent!” You might say the rest of the evening didn’t go as planned.
But, you know, the guy had a point. If you take the ascension literally, physically—and that’s one of the options here—you run into that problem right away. Unless there was some anti-matter finagling or some other kind of intervention, divine or otherwise, an object leaving the surface of the plant at light speed way back then would indeed not be even nearly beyond the reach of the Hubble, which came along later, and maybe we could . . . oh, you get the point. Most people—I guess, though these days you never know—most people long ago abandoned the three-decker universe notion that would justify the claim that Jesus “went back to Heaven,” but without arguing the endless points of contention in that claim, let’s just say most people don’t think that way any more. Right.

So, then, what happened to the body? If the Romans could have burnt it, they would have, just to get him out of their hair. Did the disciples hide it? Every now and then we have another eureka moment when somebody discovers Jesus’ remains and then finds out it ain’t really him. And if it’s all a story, who made up the story? And did they all lie about it the rest of their good lives long? Was it mass hysteria? Was it mass delusion? While there are relics of just about everybody in Christian history you can think of, there are absolutely no relics of Jesus—outside a few vials of his tears and some spurious little body shards claiming to be the residue of his bris scattered around Europe. The best we’ve got is the Shroud of Turin, and that’s a whole nuther Pandora’s box of claim and counter-claim. If Jesus did not in fact ride that cloud up the Heavenly way, wha hoppen to his resurrected body?
This one of those ya pays yer munny ya takes yer choice moments de luxe, and I don’t think there’s much to do about it. It’s one of those rocks in the road that Robert Capon says is in the Bible because the Holy Spirit wants it there. I’ll take that. But if the Holy Spirit’s insistence seems to leads us at once to an imponderable, what is it we’re supposed to be hearing, seeing, learning? Gotta cast the net on the other side. I think there are at least two directions to go from here. One has to do with you and me today, and the other has to do with getting a story told. One is mandate, the other, mystery. Let’s take the you and me part first.
Did you notice the lovely icon of Jesus’ ascension that graces the first page of Joyful Notes this week? Sometimes the Orthodox surprise me. Their icons are so . . . un-human looking so much of the time, all dark and somber and rigid. But in this one, Jesus looks almost like he’s skipping, definitely moving, which is sort of un-iconish in my experience. He looks happy, too. And did you notice, right at the edges of the image on both sides, what he’s doing? No? He’s holding hands. You don’t see with whom, but he’s holding hands. Wonder who that could be? Wanna guess? Another fetching icon I remember is of the resurrection. Jesus is coming up out of a door let into the ground—sort of reminds me of us coming out of the storm cellars after the cloud passed when I was a kid over in that county I grew up in—and he’s got somebody with him. A man, naked as the day he was born . . . er . . . created I mean, because it’s Adam. In the three days in the tomb, Jesus went down to Hell and brought everybody out, starting with our eldest brother. Isn’t that wonderful? And in this icon of the ascension, Jesus is holding hands and skipping along. I figure he’s holding hands with you and me.
Looky here. The ascension means that Jesus’ work among us is done. The second person of the Trinity—we call that Christ—took human flesh, lived, loved, taught, resisted, suffered, and died, just like us. That was so, since we’re so prone to skew God’s messages to fit our own notions, we could see the perfect revelation of God in the flesh of one of us who was utterly incorruptible, made no compromises with expedience, showed us God as God wants to be seen. He came to reassert the claim of God’s love on us, to invite us to live in and out of it: love God with all you’ve got and love your neighbors as yourselves. He got even more specific: love each other as I have loved you. And why? As today’s gospel says, so the world may know that God sent me. The church’s mission, our whole mission, is to be the sign of God’s redeeming, self-giving love for the creation. Believe me, that’s enough. And believe me, after two millennia, we’ve still got a long way to go to accomplish that mission. Yes, maybe nearly half the world’s vastly expanded and expanding population is nominally Christian. Good. I guess. But just as surely, there are people within earshot of this place who haven’t got a notion of God’s love in Christ, don’t have a notion what the cross is all about, would look at you like a calf looking at a new gate if you asked them what Jesus’ ascension is all about. When Jesus goes away, he just turns it over to us, that’s all. No other plans. Oh, the Holy Spirit is at work, to be sure, but in territory largely held by the devil. Jesus’ ascension is the astonishing corroboration that he actually trusts his work to us, to the likes of you and me! He thinks we can do it. Or at least enough of it to let the world see that he really did come to reveal God. So . . . we’ve got work to do, no?

Here’s where you can throw up your hands and say, “I hope you don’t expect me to save the world! That was his job!” You hear that, and it’s a fairly reasonable response in some ways, but it misconstrues the job. We need to pay attention to Mother Theresa here. When somebody scoffed at her—“How on God’s good green earth do you think you’re going to take care of all the homeless people in Calcutta? More people sleep on the streets here every night than live in some countries!” Know what she said? “One at a time.” One at a time.

Jesus has, like it or not, handed the work of redemption, of lifting up the fallen and showing them God’s love, over to the church, to you and me, and to say the job’s too big is silly. Of course, it’s too big, but as the hymn says, no arm so weak but may do service here. All we have to worry about is the people God sends our way, but we really really really ought to pay attention to them. This congregation is learning a lot about that these days, and though you may think your efforts are just a drop in the bucket—they are—you must remember that if you don’t put that drop in the bucket you’re in the same condition as the feller who had only one talent—and went and buried it. So the ascension is mandate. Hold hands with Jesus. He can’t take care of this one or that one, hardly matters which one, right now, so you do it. Mandate. Bear the light. So the world may believe. We already believe. Our love in Christ must bring God to those who don’t yet believe.
And now, the rest of the story. Every story has an ending, even those wonderful fantasy movies where the kiddo heroes ride off into the skies on gorgeous, silky Falcor in a never-ending story, has to stop somewhere. The Bible is a story book, a library of stories, a bunch of narratives laid out alongside each other, each a subset of the Big Story of God’s love of creation. Capon again is so useful: he reminds us that the Bible is like a movie. Even if it’s got scenes you don’t like, you gotta stay until the end, gotta see it through, if you are ever to have a chance of understanding it. And the ascension of Jesus, his “going back home,” is effectively the end of the story—or better, the end of that part of the story. There is in the study of literature what they call “a sense of an ending.” You can tell when the story’s over, and the best stories don’t try to do more, don’t rattle on when they’ve said all there is to say. I don’t know how much you know about the structure of the music we’re accustomed to, but music is written and performed in a particular key called the tonic. Usually a piece—from a lullaby to a choral symphony—starts out in its tonic key, can then go off in a bazillion directions exploring this key and that, slipping and sliding often with amazing complexity until it just about wears a feller out. But if you have any ear for music at all, you know when it’s getting ready to stop. The conductor’s arms wave and the musicians play their hearts out in the key a fifth above the tonic until all at once, crash! Everything drops back to the tonic and you know it’s over. I don’t know of anything written in the key of C that ends on a G-minor chord. The story, the song, comes back home.

Jesus’ story ends that way. We say he came from God into the world to love it and show it that God does not condemn us but rather loves us, and that those who see that, realize it, accept it, believe it, live in it, are given God’s own eternal life in his kingdom forever. John three sixteen. So what’s he gonna do next? What’s left to do? Think of the story of the Bible, from Genesis right on through Revelation, as a western. In a western we usually see pioneers starting out to make a new life in a new place; they run into trouble they can’t handle; A Tall Stranger rides in on a Tall Horse, sees the problem, solves it—and runs for mayor. No! Of course, he doesn’t run for mayor. Then everybody would hate him. No, he does what western heroes do: he rides off into the sunset, and the people standing around all shake their heads and study that silver bullet. That’s the way Jesus’ story ends, and our part is how to honor that silver bullet.
Or think of it as a tableau vivant, one of those wonderful pageants late nineteenth, early twentieth century school kids got dragooned into at commencement exercise. Say it’s June 1919, the U.S. has just won World War I, and for commencement every kid in school gets dressed up as a Good Yankee Doodle Dandy or an Evil Hun or a Brave But Battered Belgian Maiden or a foot soldier or a ship captain or a Red Cross nurse or somebody else in the war. The prissiest girl in school gets to be Miss Liberty and wrap herself in a flag and stand up on risers and hold a torch way up high. All this behind the curtain, lights off. Then the curtain parts, and the narrator begins telling the story, directing the light this way and that, telling who this is and who that is, finally ends up with all the lights on and sparklers spritzing and the upright piano hammering out America, the Beautiful—that Kate Smith thing hadn’t been written yet—and then it’s all over. That’s the way I think the Revelation works. That’s the way any story works, really, the way allegorical paintings—and icons to be sure—work. The whole story is here, and it has an ending. A mighty happy one. A mystery.
So on this Seventh Sunday of Easter which is in fact the Sunday after Ascension and might just as well be Ascension Sunday even if it did all happen on a Thursday, we can have a sense of both an ending and the anticipation of a mighty new beginning—because next Sunday is Pentecost, the day we remind ourselves of the Holy Spirit’s presence among us, and that’s a whole nuther look into the mystery and another day. Today though, be thankful that Jesus rode into town on a tall horse and showed us how to handle the bad guys. Be thankful that when he left, we got a silver bullet. Be thankful that he promised us that where he is, we may also be, indeed in his eyes already are. Be thankful that he showed us everything we need to know to do the job he left us, namely to celebrate God’s love for us—what we do in church—and to show it to everybody who crosses our path who doesn’t know it yet—what we do out of church in the world—so that the whole world may both know and believe that God is love and is reconciling all things to himself.

Happy Ascension Day!