Brainstorming a Sermon

I’m working on a sermon for Holy Monday, my first sermon (as opposed to a few short meditations given during Evensong or Evening Prayer) at All Saints’ Episcopal. I’ve been re-reading all of the Gospel of John; I finished reading Christopher Moore’s excellent novel, Lamb, a story of Jesus’ life prior to, yet including, the Gospels; and I’ve listened to BBC 4 Radio’s show In Our Time, the recent episode on Mary Magdalene–I highly recommend it. All this time, I’m trying to intuit where the Spirit is talking to me, to where the energy is, as I wonder about the scripture readings for the day–the Gospel reading is John 12: 1-11. Many springs bubble up in my heart and my mind, feelings try to creep in, too.

Feelings–I pick apart all the little nuggets of information I’ve gleaned (yes, I’m mixing images–one gleans ears of wheat rather than stones) and that helps keep the feelings tamped down. Excited and nervous, of course, only natural. But last year’s Holy Monday sermon given at All Saints’ is still in my heart; it’s one of my favorites and I can still feel the Spirit in it, trying to call me out of myself. And I confess, I have to remind myself about non-competitive transcendence. I don’t want a better sermon, I just want to write my sermon. A thoughtful, feeling sermon. A sermon that calls  to others.

And what I’m feeling is a memory of a night when I was on duty as a volunteer night chaplain at a hospital in Waterloo, Iowa, that surfaced today while I was picturing Mary wiping Jesus’ feet with her long hair and the nard. Latent anger still lingers whenever I recall that night and I know it colors how I feel about my gay friends and it colors how I feel about violence. That particular night I’d done my rounds and returned to the chaplains’ room. At some point, my pager went off—a call to the ED for a trauma patient. Arriving in the suite reserved for trauma victims (this was my second time there, but my baptism by fire is a story for another time), I discovered that the victim was a young black man, nineteen years old, comatose, his fucking head bloody because he’d been beaten with a fucking baseball bat. This young man was beaten by members of his own community because he was gay.

His brain was swollen and pressure had built up (I forget the exact medical terminology, but that’s the gist of it); his mother and siblings were in the suite, awaiting the medical transport helicopter that would take him to Iowa City. The university hospital was much better suited to perform the pressure-relieving surgery; the doctors told us that they were confident the surgery would be successful. The helicopter arrived, and as we stood around the young man on the gurney before the medics came in to get him, his mother asked me to pray. She was trying to be strong and looked for hope, for assurance. What could I pray when I felt a very strong sense that the young man would not survive the violence done to him? How to pray out of an angry place—because besides the reality of this young man and his family, what-ifs of my son, just a few years older, came into being; what-ifs of my gay friends came into being; the realities of those who suffered violence because of who they were angered and frightened me.

Was Mary at all angry as Jesus spoke to his disciples of what must befall him? John doesn’t say that she was weeping (though I tend to cry when mad) while she anoints Jesus’ feet with the nard. I know my experience in the ED is being brought forward by the questions I’m asking of the text; surely, if I’m angry about the beating of this young man, who until that moment was unknown to me, how can Mary not be at least a little so on behalf of her beloved “Rabbouni?” Or perhaps this is the way she prayed for a man she knew was going to suffer violence at the hands of others, even though it was 0f his own volition. Maybe Jesus needed hope; hope given in abundance in Mary’s actions as she was present in those moments of care.

In the everlasting seconds that quickly passed as I stood there, those questions I asked of God were answered by the Holy Spirit’s presence, which transformed my abundance of anger into an abundance of love, enabling me to be a safe presence for the young man’s family as we prayed for his safe arrival to the hospital, for the doctors and nurses who would care for him, and for God to give strength and solace to his family at that time.

At his funeral, his mother and I embraced and a sense of understanding and love passed between us, as we both shed tears, an anointment of sorts.

Theo-proprioception

“Why did you prostrate yourself during the prayers?” I ask my friend after his ordination into the priesthood a couple of Saturdays ago, as we’re walking to a pub for a celebratory beer (we are Episcopalians, after all). My voice is level (I think) as I ask.

“It’s an ancient practice,” he responds, “and besides, I could just lie there and listen to the prayers.”

“Oh. I know of prostration at other times, but haven’t seen anyone do it at an ordination before.” I can’t remember if I told him that it was my favorite part of the service and said that it had made me a bit teary-eyed, trying to be nonchalant, unwilling to show him exactly how much that moment meant, or if I did in fact tell him it was the most profound and intense moment of the service for me.

I’ve seen a number of friends ordained into the transitional and vocational diaconate, and prior to July 11, one ordination into the priesthood. At that particular ordination, I saw a visible transformation as the bishop laid hands on that other friend as he was clothed in priestly garb. An outward sign of inward grace, perhaps the Holy Spirit descending, the ontological change joked about at seminary—I don’t know, except that the sensation was wholly unexpected. That transition was transcendent in a sparkly, numinous way. And having experienced it once, I earnestly (and naively) awaited witnessing the same for this friend at that point during his ordination.

So the service begins after the procession, and my friend is in his alb, looking pretty much as he did when last I saw him at graduation in May. The Presentation goes quickly, and next is the Litany of Ordination–the prayers on behalf of the candidate. I fiddle with the Order of Service, crumpling the sheets slightly while looking for the right page, intending to follow along, all the while anticipating the big moment coming up later in the service. I could go on liturgical autopilot for a few minutes.

And then . . . as we stand and as the bishop begins, my friend is not standing, is not on his knees, but prostrate, his head resting on his crossed arms, and suddenly now is the transcendent moment, for me anyway, sans sparkles. I have no voice to join in with the rest of the body as they respond to the bishop’s petitions with “Lord, hear our prayer” or maybe it was “Lord, have mercy,” because tears have started down my cheeks. My heart was on its knees. . .

Frankly, for the longest time, I could not see how the posture of my body could affect my ability to feel the presence of the Holy Spirit or to discern God’s will for me. I knew my heart was pretty open as it was. On Maundy Thursday, after having been “banished” from my home parish during Lent (so that I could experience the wider Church as part of my discernment), and after having visited the Seminary of the Southwest’s campus, I stretched myself out before the cross, after the agape meal (a story in itself) at St. Luke’s in Cedar Falls. I tried to lay open my heart.

Those who know me know my weakness for the Fool, especially Nick Bottom, the ass-headed (figuratively and literally) rude mechanical of my favorite Shakespeare play, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the literary character whom I most love and with whom I most identify. (My love of Puck, the Trickster, is another story). In Act 4, Scene 1, Bottom’s otherwordly, I mean otherworldly, vulnerability brings tears every time to my eyes. His fumbling, earnest, unashamed attempt to articulate his participation within the body of fairies as he seeks to describe his experience with Titania, Queen of the Fairies, has wound itself around my heart: “The eye of man hath not heard, the ear of man hath not seen, man’s hand is not able to taste, his tongue to conceive, nor his heart to report, what my dream was.”

In seminary, I could often be found stretched out in the breezeway, on the ledge of a brick wall, on the library floor, or even on the floor during class (I was roasted for my “planking” habit at Last Gathering the year I graduated). Reading assignments or research for my thesis, a notepad, pens, pencils, spread out around me when on the breezeway or in the library (scaled back slightly if in class). An arm served as a prop for my head, hand tucked under my chin—my favored learning posture. I eagerly read biblical scholarship, scripture, or best of all, theology.

Bottom mangles a quote from older scripture that Paul, that fool of fools, uses in his letter to the Corinthian house churches (1 Cor 2:9). Paul, who opened his heart again and again, to Christ and for Christ, writing of the body of Christ for the body of Christ. Did a part of him always remain prostrate on the road to Damascus?

. . . and so, there is my friend, lying prone, heart open, as he is prayed for by the rest of the body of Christ present that day in that place, in a human gesture of surrender and obedience as he becomes a priest. My own body stands, but my heart is aware of God’s presence, grateful for fools who are translated by, and who translate God’s love.