I want to start today with the story that comes to mind because of Veteran’s Day, which coincides with Remembrance Day in Great Britain, hence the poppy I am wearing this morning. (I’ll say more about that in a bit.) Both days were instituted to remember war and the people who fought in them.
Eight years ago Kristin, Margaret, Desmond, cousin Mattie (to help with the kids), and I were in France. We went from Paris to Normandy for the day to visit Omaha Beach. We wandered the rows of white cross and read the tourist panels, but after a bit it was time to go run around on the beach.
As the kids were chasing the tide in and out, I did what I always do, lay down for a 20-minute nap. Very typical. It was a beautiful day. The sand was warm and dry. I call these 20-minute naps naps, but they are really something else. I never actually fall asleep. I never detach from what’s happening around me.
It doesn’t matter if it is quiet, or my two-year-old is playing next to me in her bedroom (back in the day), or I’m in St. George’s garden at the cathedral in Jerusalem, where Lorelle Shearer mistook me for a dead man and reported it to the front desk. I guess I look different without my collar.
Anyway, back to the particularities of the nap. Here is what happens: I lay very still for a while, and then all of a sudden, and it happens every time, I arrive at a place, sort of like touching base in tag, and the second I touch it, I’m refreshed, and I get up. It almost always takes 20-minutes. It doesn’t matter if I’m tired or wide awake when I lay down, it’s always the same. I’ve been doing this since my twenties.
Lately, it has occurred to me that touching base, if you will, during these naps may have something to do with connecting to my soul, or maybe the connectivity of the soul. Which brings me back to Omaha beach. On that sunny day, as the kids played, I laid down, stilled my body, let my mind drift, but this time when I touched my soul it was different. It wasn’t just touching base, it was seeing the entire playing field.
As I opened my eyes it was as if I was seeing the sky through the eyes of thousands upon thousands who lay on that beach looking up at it 71 years earlier. It was a soul-to-soul encounter; a moment of transcendent connection beyond the physical and outside of time. Since I know you, I know some of you have had similar experiences of transcendence.
John McCrea had a similar sense of this connectedness of souls as he fought in the trenches of Flanders during WW1. It inspired him to write this poem, you may know it:
In Flanders Fields, the poppies blow
between the crosses, row on row,
that mark our place; and in the sky
the larks, still bravely singing, fly
scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
loved, and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders Fields.
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders Fields.
It is this connection with the beyond and the before, outside the chronology of time, that I want to talk about today, on this in-gathering Sunday. For this is the real estate of Christianity, the fields of our faith, spoken through the language of mysticism, to a community of continuity, linked through the love of God to all souls here, all souls who have been, and all souls yet to come here; to this world, to this nation, to this city, to this church, where you sit today,providentially.
What may feel like our choice is also part of God’s plan. You are part of a chosen people, connected here to Epiphany: a small church, in a big city, in a nation divided, in a world awash with anxiety. And we can do something about this because we are connected, soul to soul to soul. This is the real estate of our faith.
We are like the prophet Elisha when confronted by the army of King Aram. His aide was struck by fear as the army approached, but Elisha said: “Do not be afraid.” Then he asked God to open the eyes of his aide to see in the mountains around them the community of God connected to them from beyond on horses and in chariots of fire.
Then Elisha asked God to put blindness in the eyes of his enemy… and so, it was. He then led them into Samaria, where he set them before their archrival, the King of Israel, who asked: “Shall I kill them all?” To which Elisha responded: “No, feed them, and set them free.” (2 Kings 6:15-23 para).
Freedom is always the rallying cry of war. It is the word that inspired men the world over, in 1914, to march optimistically toward Flanders Fields, for the sake of king and country, only to find it awash with the new weapons of science; particularly gases that burned eyes and lungs, leaving bodies piled high, charred from the inside out through the power of chemistry.
That was then. Today we live with the fear of physics hanging over us, having once seen it sear the sky above of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Today these weapons claw their cages, too often guarded by mad men.
We think on these things this morning as we hear Jesus in the temple, speaking with his disciples, with words that have an apocalyptic edge to them, and may cause our hearts to tremble given the world today; given what we know to be true about the power of chemistry, and the power of physics, and the bent perspective of power-hungry men.
Theirs is the army of Aram. Theirs may even be the army of Israel. But the fields we stand upon, the fields of faith, are as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, connected soul to soul to soul to the undisputed love of God.
We have faith because God is love, and no one is outside this love. It is a love that connects the beyond and the before, outside the chronology of time, across the fields of Christian faith. That is where true freedom resides, the playing fields of our faith.
That is the real estate upon which we sit this morning. That is the point, and the purpose, and the power of a little neighborhood church. It is love, only love…and only love will save the world. To us LOVE stands for something.
And maybe we’ll do something big. Maybe we’ll become like Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, GA. Maybe we’ll be like Elijah in Samaria. But probably not, and in a way we hope not, but still, we have a duty to be a place of love; a duty to be inviting, reconciling, and celebrating all the souls that come into our lives
And this looks like small things done over and over again that strengthen the fabric of the community and act as fertilizer that allows the poppies to grow. It looks like LOVE: Living Our Values at Epiphany.
I’d like to finish up this in-gathering sermon reflecting on how these values are developed, practiced, and played out on the fields of our faith.
There is the language taught and the common culture created in Sunday school and minyans and sermons and articles and Bible study and classes and in our choir. Then there are the practices like worship and pilgrimage and prayer,
but also fasting and tithing, which we celebrate today. Finally, there is the work of fellowship and outreach and community connection and care. And all this has to do with care of the soul.
And all of that is good, but today I would also like us to consider a deeper, more personal question: Are we the kind of people other people would like to be like? Are we kind, inclusive, generous, inviting, gracious, or do we have moments when we live into the secular culture’s opinion of Christians as judgmental and exclusive and, in some cases, mean. I don’t generally find that Epiphany, but it certainly can find expressions in our common life.
My hope is that people see us as the MOST generous, thoughtful, present, compassionate, forgiving, reconciling people they know. And they ask: How are you like that? To which you say, it is LOVE: The practice of living the values of Epiphany.
That doesn’t make us perfect, incidentally. We get mad, we make mistakes, and we feel shame, and all that other junk. That’s OK. That is normal. The more important point is speed to recovery, speed to equanimity, speed to forgiveness, speed to reconciliation.
That’s the sign of a soul filled, love-filled Christian…and it looks like joy and equanimity when played out. That is what we return to when we touch base. It is compelling, and it is how we’re going to change the world: by living the values of this church, soul to soul to soul, with the beyond and the before, right here right now.
That is the power of love, living out through the endurance of our souls. That is the point of this place, your parish, Epiphany.