Harrowing Of Hell
March 31, 2019

Ready for the Next Thing

Preacher: The Rev. Doyt L. Conn, Jr.

To listen to the sermon click here.

Kristin and I just returned from Maui last week. She had a conference, and I tagged alone, because I love her, and it was Hawaii. And while there, I did what I usually do (you should know about this incidentally) I did a parishioner audit, going to the nearest Episcopal church on Sunday to see if any of you who claimed to be in Hawaii were actually in church…and sure enough, I was pleased to see John and Marsha Proctor there worshipping at Trinity-By-The-Sea. 

Anyway a few days before that, on Thursday, my day wasn’t going quite as I thought it should. Instead of surfing, which I had been doing, I decided to rent a scooter and explore the area. I cabbed to town, then walked to the rental place I had scoped out the day before. They were out of scooters. I couldn’t believe it; and they wouldn’t rent me a motorcycle, because I don’t have a motorcycle license. 

And suddenly my vision for the day was blotted out. There I was with nothing planned, and no one needing anything from me; because no one knew me on Maui, (except for the Proctors who didn’t know I was there).

That’s a little strange for a neighborhood priest, not knowing anybody. In fact, one of the things I love about being a neighborhood priest, here, is that I am always running into people I know. Everywhere. I love that.  I see folks.  I say “hi.”  They say “hi.” I know their stories. They know me – but not on Maui.

So, I started to walk (since I had no scooter), back in the neighborhoods that I wanted to explore. And as I did, I noticed that there were these beach access streets that run down to the ocean between the houses on the water. So, I turned down one and could see a woman at the other end, by the ocean, picking things up off the ground. 

I approached. She turned to me, and I asked her what she was doing. “Picking up broken pieces of shell.”  “What for?” I asked. “Oh, I give them to my sister in the event she wants to use them to make jewelry.”  I wasn’t certain she knew if her sister made jewelry or not.

I introduced myself. She shook my hand; hers were covered with lime green paint. She had a small backpack slung over her shoulder, with a skateboard tied to it. Her hair was wild, and she had tattoos on her neck that said: “Native” and other tattoos running down her arms. And she had no shoes, nor flip flops, nor sandals on her feet. 

I would have never met her had the scooter been available, so I figured I was where I was meant to be. She talked, and I asked a few questions, and she told me about her life.  It is a hard life, the kind of life that makes you want to cry. After a while, quite a while, like maybe 20 minutes or so she stopped, rather abruptly, and paused, and then sort of looked up at me, and asked: “Who are you?”

It was an interesting question; not just the words, but the way she asked it. It wasn’t a question about my identity, or a request for more of my history…and it caught me off guard. I fumbled for a second, and then sort of shrugged: “Just a guy who came out to see the ocean,” I replied, which was true, but incomplete. I was really a guy present to the moment and open to the very next thing.

That, incidentally, is the definition of the spiritual journey: Being present in the moment and being open and prepared to deal with the very next thing encountered…whether it be an unexpected conversation, or an email, or witness to a fist fight on a public bus, or a new idea encountered on a pod cast, or an unexpected diagnosis. When we are present in the moment, grounded, we are prepared for the very next thing.

I don’t often allow myself to be present to the moment. I mostly have an agenda, like renting a scooter, but not on that Thursday on Maui. On that day I was cast into  a conversation with a homeless woman about spiritual things. I often find that when I am present, and available for the very next thing, the conversations and encounters have a spiritual overtone.

This one did. She told me about the things she believed in, and her heartbreaks, and the things that represented who she is. Maybe spiritual things come up in chance encounters because it seems safer, somehow, to be vulnerable to a stranger about one’s heart.And then she asked the question… “Who are you?”

It wasn’t a question about my job, or family, or history, or experiences; it was a question about what I am connected too. When I walk around this neighborhood, I am connected to my collar, or to Epiphany, or to my children.  At the Marriot in Maui, I was connected to my wife. I like those connections, it makes life easier, and things are clearer. 

My friend at the beach was wondering about a different connection, a deeper connection, a connection that made me, I guess, seem both present, and open to my encounter with her.

We see in the story of the Prodigal son, this morning, a father who seems ready for the very next thing. There he is, doing whatever he was doing, when he sees in the distance a man walking…it is a walk he recognizes: the roll of the shoulders, the swing of the arms, the tilt of the head, all familiar, as familiar as if I saw my son Desmond coming around the corner.

The father was ready. He was prepared, not for this thing, but for the very next thing, which, in this case, was an encounter with his long-lost son.

Like a shot he was off, with a smile and a warm heart…arms up and then around the boy’s shoulders. A hug. A kiss. A slap on the back. Not seeing the old clothes and the empty bag. Not seeing the feet without sandals….Or maybe, because the father was present to the moment, he did see, but whatever that revealed about the boy was overshadowed by the connection…and not just father to son connection, but father to God to the son connection. 

That is the primary connection sought in the spiritual life…this me to God to you, whoever you are, is the connection we strive for on the spiritual journey. It is the connection that grounds us in the present, because when we are connected to God, right here, right now, in the moment, then we are, in all cases, ready for the very next thing.

The boy, still caught up in himself and his folly and his pride, asked to be a servant.  After all he has no shoes, and servants are known to be servants by their lack of shoes. But the father, not abiding this cultural standard, calls for shoes for his son’s feet, and a robe, and a ring — hallmarks of favor and belovedness. And they are retrieved by a man with no shoes.

As I stood there on the beach in Maui with the woman who had no shoes, she told me her greatest hope: that the skateboard she carried with her she would one day be able to give to her son. She found the skateboard, and while, she said, it is a little beat up (and it was) he may really love it if I can give it to him. She hadn’t seen him for three years or so, and wasn’t quite sure where he was. 

She had no plans to see him either, but she was ready. She carried that skateboard with her everywhere, and if, by the grace of God, one day, maybe when she was at the beach, picking up broken shells, maybe he would wander up, and give him the skateboard.

It seems unlikely, but who knows? She was present, and she as ready, and there was hope. Maybe that is how the Prodigal Son’s Father was as well. Maybe he had sandals and a robe and ring already in the unlikely chance his son would show up again. Or maybe he was just spiritually mature and always ready for the very next thing.

I’m not sure, but here is something to contemplate…the barefoot man who retrieved the sandals and the rode and the ring; what did he hope for? What story would he have told you were you to meet him on a beach? After all, no doubt, he has a skateboard somewhere he is carrying, some hoped for encounter that he believes would make his life whole.

And while we see the Father in this story of the Prodigal son seemingly so present and ready for the very next thing, he failed, somehow, to see what was right in front of him. He failed to see the man with no shoes right there in his own neighborhood. He had failed to see the connection between himself, the landowner, and God, and his servant. He failed to see through the transactional to the deeper connections of his life, right here, right now, to God, to the servant with no shoes. He was ready for the unexpected, but not, it seems, for the familiar.

I was ready for the unexpected encounter on the beach in Maui, because my vision for the day had been blotted out. But what about other days? What about the days when the scooter is available? What about the days when I am living my vision for how my day will go?

On those days am I present and ready for the very next thing? Am I ready to say in this moment it is me and God and you? I am ready to meet the person with no shoes in the routines of my regular life? How about you? Do you see the man with no shoes?