Back in the beginning of this congregation’s ministry, we published an anti-slavery newspaper called The Independent, with a circulation of 15,000 – a very impressive number for that time. The Independent was notable for all kinds of reasons, one of which was that it published the poems of a woman named Emily Dickinson, and thus helped to spread her renown. I’ve always loved the idea that the Belle of Amherst became known and loved by Americans, at least in part because of Broadway.
Dickinson famously wrote: “Hope is the thing with feathers, That perches in the soul, And sings the tune--Without the words, And never stops at all, And sweetest in the gale is heard; And sore must be the storm, That could abash the little bird That kept so many warm. I've heard it in the chillest land, And on the strangest sea; Yet, never, in extremity, It asked a crumb of me.”
On the day I sat down to write the first draft of this sermon, I was absolutely overcome with the desire to sleep. I hadn’t slept well the night before, but that alone could not account for the overwhelming need I had to crawl back into bed, pull the covers over my head, and drift away.
I kept staring at the computer screen, trying to motivate myself without any luck, when it suddenly dawned on me why I was so sleepy. It was the nature of reality that was pushing my eyelids down. Reality was making me so tired. Sleep would provide an escape from my worrying about Ella’s health. I needed an escape from worrying about my mother’s health. I needed an escape from the myriad demands and stresses of selling an apartment and buying a house, of saying goodbye and walking into the unknown. I needed an escape. And so my body responded in its marvelously self-protective way.
This mantra was the spiritual cornerstone of my young life. The prayer language I used as a Christ-obsessed teenager was somewhere between self-loathing and humble. As I hoped for Jesus’ transformation in the world, my inadequacy revealed itself around the fringes of the prayer. This language spoke to the strength and hope of Christ, but denied my presence entirely; it denied my body. As we allow wisdom of the text to speak to us today, may we also remember and honor those who feel stifled and smothered by these words, those who cannot live up to standards of the capital B Bible. Sometimes the Reign of Christ feels like it’s meant for someone else. Like a letter was mailed to the wrong person.
From time to time I retreat at the Episcopal Monastery of the Holy Cross. It’s about 90 miles north of New York and sits perched on a bluff overlooking the Hudson River. There’s a lot of quiet at Holy Cross, but too much quiet makes me kind of nervous, and so I like to mix my quietness with activity. Over the years I have participated in various guided retreats. I’ve studied things like the physicality of prayer and the feminine aspects of the divine. But my favorite retreat was the one I did about three years ago on writing an icon, which is how one refers to the process of painting one. You “write” an icon.
At the Worship Committee meeting last Sunday, someone asked me why I choose to preach from the lectionary, that three-year cycle of Biblical readings. My response to that question has always been the same: I preach from the lectionary because it keeps me honest. Without its discipline, I would be tempted to just preach about those things I like. And I would never choose passages like the ones we heard today.
What these three readings have in common is their apocalyptic fire. They speak of last things and final judgments. And recent events have me thinking more about the Apocalypse than I ever have before: fires and hurricanes, floods and assault weapons, terrorist plots and a warming planet and reckless, dangerous leaders with nuclear codes.