[Sermon preached on Sunday, February 11, 2018 (Last Epiphany, Year B) at Saint Paul’s Church on Lake of the Isles – Minneapolis, MN]
Then Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” He did not know what to say, for they were terrified.
Mark 9:5,6 (NRSV)
Years ago, before deciding to pursue Holy Orders, go to seminary, and become a priest, I was a member of my parish choir in Atlanta, Georgia. I am not sure if this is still true, but the choir of Saint Paul’s Episcopal Church in Atlanta was one of the largest volunteer choirs in the entirety of the Episcopal Church. It wasn’t uncommon for the choir to feature fifty voices on a typical Sunday morning and anything from eighty to one hundred for major liturgies. Excellent choral music was a big deal for that parish and nowhere was this more evident than Holy Week. By the time I had come along, the choir had developed the tradition of offering John Rutter’s Requiem on Good Friday with the third movement, “Pie Jesu,” being sung as the offertory anthem.
If you have ever heard this piece you’ll know that it seems Rutter intended for this piece to leave the listener transfixed and in the heights of “wonder, love, and praise.” As the soloist, a fabulous soprano named Ann Marie McPhail, effortlessly progressed up the final note progression singing “sempeternam dona eis requiem” it literally felt like being borne on angelic wings and by the time she landed on her final high A, it felt as though eternity itself had stopped to take a breathless pause.
The silence that followed that moment was supposed to further accentuate the high drama to which everything about that liturgy was pointing. But instead, just as the room fell into a deep, vivid, rhythmic silence, a man sitting about halfway from the front of the chancel, stood up and, clapping loudly, began shouting, “BRAVO! BRAVO! ENCORE! ENCORE!”
Thoughtful, reflective, prayerful silence is hard for us, particularly in a broader cultural context that privileges constant activity as an outward and visible sign of our production-based value. This lack of spaciousness in our world, and in our own hearts, is made worse if you are someone like me – a fixer – someone hardwired to react and do, often without taking the proper time to think and plan. I often find myself reacting from fear, or discomfort, or, like that man all those years ago, from a place of being emotionally overwhelmed. It takes so much intentionally and purpose to simply hold silence and to allow it to do the speaking. But it strikes me that in a culture such as ours, a culture wherein we are regularly accosted by so much noise and half-baked responses to very real problems, we might do well to recover prayerful silence, inner stillness, what the Benedictines call “stability,” and what my grandmother was referring to when she would tell us “hush, child. God is speaking.”
Once, while facilitating an antiracism training in the Episcopal Diocese of West Missouri, a black woman stood up to share her story of experiencing racism in her own church, a church that took the basketball goals down from their outdoor basketball court because they had begun receiving complaints from the neighbors that basketball attracted “those people” (“those people” being that black children who lived a few blocks over) despite the fact that one of “those people” was the woman’s own son. As these stories often do, they lead from one thing to another, weaving a narrative of very real pain and hurt felt in very real people’s lives. What I instruct the group to do is to listen with space and to listen for moments of connection, because it is from those spaces of overlapping experience, those moments of “joining,” that change can occur.
Eventually another woman, a white woman, stood up to share her story of growing up in poverty, but attending high school in a wealthy school district. She talked about all the ways in which she was ostracized because of her hand-me-down clothes, or because she couldn’t afford to go on all the school trips, or because her parents were too busy working to take her to and from all the extracurricular activities. At one point in her story, she began to weep. The first woman stood up and shouted, “that has nothing to do with what I said! You have no idea what it is like to be black! You’re distracting from the conversation!”
Now, I don’t often directly intervene in conversations in this setting. I trust people to be able to find their way through difficulty towards a constructive conclusion. But this time I felt compelled.
“Can you try something on?” I asked.
“Yes,” she huffed.
“Okay. Try this on,” I said. “She may not know what it is like to be a black woman, but what if she does know what it is like to be ostracized and outcast for something beyond her control? What if she wasn’t trying to distract but instead was trying to join you?
She didn’t say anything. She only stared silently with that look that suggested she was thinking very deeply.
“This is what I want you to try on,” I continued. “When you share, share with openness, and trust that others are graciously listening for points of connection. When you are listening, it is your turn to graciously listen, not for how your stories are different, but first, for how they are the same.”
When Peter interrupts the Transfiguration of our Lord with his request borne of anxiety, he was responding from a place of narrowness. All through the Gospels, Peter is portrayed as one who is hasty and brash, and that personality is on full display here. In a moment when the full glory of Christ is revealed to Peter, James, and John; in a moment when the only proper response was awestruck silence, Peter responds with “Wow! This is a amazing! We must do something about this! We have to do something with this!”
Except that grace can neither be constructed nor contained.
Except that grace can neither be constructed nor contained. We can till the ground around it, water it, ensure it has plenty of sunshine and fertilizer, but ultimately grace is a gift. Grace is God’s job not ours. We are simply to receive its gifts with openness, with stillness, with spaciousness. Like gracious hosts, we are to keep space in our hearts ready, knowing that at any time, grace could visit us and change our lives forever.
This week we transition from the Season after the Epiphany into the Season of Lent – the 40 days of prayer and discipleship that lead us to the tragedy of the crucifixion and the mystery of the resurrection. It can be incredibly easy to do one of two things during lent. First, it is easy to treat Lent as if it, and the spiritual life it invites us into don’t matter. We do this by keeping a normal routine leaving little or no time for prayer and study. Second, it is easy to treat Lent like a fad diet, a forty-day spiritual bootcamp, or a spiritual cleanse. Rather than relaxing into the alternate rhythm of Lent, we construct a framework of anxiety and worry.
This year, I want to offer you a third way – one of thoughtful, reflective, prayerful silence. My prayer for each of us is that we would allow Lent to be for us a moment of spiritual spaciousness, a moment of prayerful reflection, a time to reconnect to the things that truly sustain and nourish our souls. I hope we will allow Lent to be the moment when we decide to take our lives back from endless lists of things to do, from voices that cause us to be afraid, from things that distract us from our goals. I pray that Lent will be a time when we hear of God’s profound love for us again and again and again.
I pray that Lent will teach us something about the stillness and space required to behold God’s grace and glory.
Be still, my soul: the Lord is on thy side;
bear patiently the cross of grief or pain;
leave to thy God to order and provide;
in ev’ry change He faithful will remain.
Be still, my soul: thy best, thy heav’nly Friend
thro’ thorny ways leads to a joyful end.