Thursday, May 10, 2007

Mother's Day; Mother, the hour has come...

Mother's Day Sermon,
The Rev. Este Gardner Cantor

Mother, the hour has come; glorify your daughter so that the daughter may glorify you. Amen.

This is a plausible prayer for Mother's Day. Perhaps one that a daughter might pray to a mother in heaven at the hour that the daughter first gives birth. I think I prayed a prayer something like that like that when my daughter was born. I prayed for courage after 31 hours of labor that culminated in the glorious birth of my first daughter.

If you are a mother, there's nothing I can tell you about being a mother that you don't already know. If you are not a mother, then maybe you will do what I am going to do today. Maybe you will reminisce about your own mother. Maybe you will recall her in all her short-comings and all her glory.

When I think about how the Holy Spirit worked through my mother to bring me into the Episcopal church, I picture it like this. In the beginning, the Spirit of God moved over the face of the deep and chlorinated waters of the Indian Springs country club in rural Maryland. She then glided over the shallow end and kept moving until she rested on the sun-tanned face of Babs Warren, who immediately removed her sunglasses and sat bolt upright. She turned to the sunbathing figure of my mother lying next to her and proclaimed, "Joan! I've been meaning to tell you about this neat little church I've started going to! St. Michael and All Angels Church over in Adelphi!"

The next Sunday my mother took me there. She didn't say I had to go. She never said I had to go. She would just put on some great-looking little suit and say, "I'm going to church. Wanta go?" I did want to go. I always wanted to go. I had never set foot in a church until I was 8 years old so it was strange, fascinating and exotic to me. Since I was a girl I could not, of course, be an acolyte like my brother, but I did everything I could do. I joined the choir, I went to Sunday school, I performed in the variety shows. I went to the pot lucks. After a while my mother got confirmed and I asked her if I could do that. She told me that I had to be baptized first, and I was all for that. And so I was baptized on Easter Even in April of 1962, and a week later I was confirmed by Bishop William Creighton.

My mother had purchased a beautiful white lacy dress for the confirmation. This purchase caused a screaming fight between my mother and father, so the dress must have been really expensive. My father boycotted the confirmation event, probably because of the dress. But I had the satisfaction of watching my priest, Don Seaton, storm into our apartment without knocking on the afternoon of my confirmation. He shouted at my father, who had been reclining on an easy chair, "Where the hell were you this morning, Dave Gardner?" I was thrilled. My mother had extraordinarily high boundaries when it came to church work. She never joined the choir. I never saw her enter the church kitchen. She was never on the altar guild. Never even taught Sunday school. And for years she never joined a committee. I later realized that as the daughter of a preacher she felt she had done her time as far as church work was concerned all through her childhood and youth. But she was in those pews every Sunday, and finally, there came a time when she did join a committee.

My mother not only introduced me to the Episcopal church, she also introduced me to social justice. In the sixties the Episcopal Society for Cultural and Racial Unity was very active in the civil rights movement, and St. Michael and All Angels became involved too. This was the committee that my mother finally joined. Groups from the church would go out and participate in civil rights demonstrations which Mother, however, felt were too dangerous for me to go to. But I remember joining my mother and a group from St. Michael's to picket a housing development in rural Maryland called the "Belle Aire Estates." They cluelessly advertised the fact that they would admit no black families to their housing developments. At twelve years old I walked proudly behind my mother in the picket line, carrying a placard and miming her obliviousness to the rude comments that were hurled in our direction.

In August 1963 the March on Washington was being organized and I begged to go. But in many quarters it was feared that the march would be a bloodbath, as so many marches had been in the South, and so my mother forbade me to go. Not many people in our church had the courage to go to that march, but my mother was one of them. She got to hear the "I Have a Dream" speech by Martin Luther King Jr., and all I got was this lousy bulletin from the march. It was clear from the remarks on the bulletin that the organizers expected the march might be violent as well. It read in part, "We call upon all marchers, black and white to resist all provocations to disorder and violence." The march, of course was a peaceful and history-making event.

My mother was also before her time in her support of the support gay rights, although she wouldn't have called it that. When I was five years old, she worked as an Arthur Murray's Dance Studio instructor. I loved this cool new job my mother had, and I loved watching her dance in her gauzy formal gowns. I noticed right away that most of her co-workers were good-looking young men who dressed extremely well. And they all seemed to pair off socially. When I asked her about this she told me that the reason they liked each other so much and were not married was because they were gay. And that's also why they are so much fun, she added, I agreed completely.

The advent of the sixties seemed to suit my mother really well. In one of St. Michael's infamous floor shows, she organized a group of women to do a modern dance as beatniks. Dressed in black tights, long black turtlenecks and berets, they did a slow and Jules Feiffer-like modern Dance while they intoned the nursery rhyme, "Peas porridge hot, peas porridge cold, peas porridge in the pot, nine days old" My mother looked great in tights, and she was aware of this.

My mother, through St. Michael's church, also introduced me to pastoral care. We would frequently drive out with the church group to orphanages or half-way houses for youth to play with the children there. I clearly remember my mother sitting on the sidewalk with a few of the girls from the half way house, playing jacks and laughing.

After I left home my parents separated and my mother moved out of the suburbs and into a breathtakingly dangerous neighborhood. She immediately made friends with her neighbors and allowed the children of the neighborhood to have the run of her small apartment, often feeding them or giving them small gifts. She was not tempted to move out of the neighborhood even when her apartment was, predictably enough, burglarized. Finally, one of her neighbors was murdered and her family insisted that she move into a safer area. So she moved directly across the street from Christ's church in a slightly safer part of town, as if to say that this was all the protection she needed.

Like many great women and men in history, my mother's courage and virtues did not always extend to her duties as a mother. But she had no patience for my complaints. She seems to lack the guilt gene that I inherited so strikingly. In answer to my protests about her neglect or her dishonesty, she would exclaim with great incredulity, "Oh, give me a break!" When pushed she might finally say, "Mea Culpa! Mea Culpa! All right?"

By the time I was 24, which was the year she died, I had decided that her manifold sins and wickedness were beyond my powers of forgiveness. We were barely on speaking terms. I was in art school at the time, painting large silver cubes or something. When she ventured that she couldn't see that there would be any money in that, I took it as proof of her great, sabotaging lack of faith in me. Then, miraculously, a week before she died, she heard me being interviewed on the radio for a show I was in. The next time I saw her, which was the last time I ever saw her, she embraced me and told me how proud she was of me – that she was glad I was doing what I really wanted to do, and was sure I would succeed. This exchange was so utterly uncharacteristic of her, that I don't think I uttered a word in response. Luckily I did return her embrace.

My mother brought me back to the Episcopal church again, twenty-some years later, when my long suppressed mourning for her reached a fever pitch, and going to church was the only thing I could think of doing. Over the years, especially as I have been on the rocky path to holy orders, I have thought about her a lot. Sometimes, when I am sitting in the front row of a service that has particularly low attendance (Christmas day, for instance, or Thanksgiving ) I realize that contrary to appearances, I am not sitting all alone on that pew. I can sometimes feel her presence very palpably at those times, sitting right next to me in one of those great little suits.

I have been preaching about my mother from my very first sermon, and as you can see, it's still all about her. I feel sure that she will be with me as I celebrate with my family, and without her. But you can be my witnesses today, on this Mother's Day, that at least in part, what I have done I have done to glorify my mother in heaven, so that she just might shed some of her glory on me.


Paul’s Commute to Damascus

Earth Sunday, April 22, 2007
OK, you heard about my mom...

When I think of the earth, I always think of my father. My father was a geologist and a great lover of nature. As a small child it was easy for me to mistake my father for God, maybe even more than most kids. Because he was the one that told me about the mountains and the glaciers and the forests and the great boulders and the sun and the moon, and what they were all made of. He was the one who told me about granite, slate, sandstone and obsidian. He would take us all to gorgeous natural wonders- mountains, forests, oceans. He would show me a tiny garnet that had formed on the tip of a great mound of granite on a mountaintop, or how a perfectly round pothole in a great bolder in the Shenandoah Valley produced a perfectly round stone inside it. He talked about granite (his personally favorite rock) so much that when I first heard of taking someone for "granite," I thought it meant mistaking them for a large gray rock, and I could see how that would offend them.

He took us to Assoteague Island off the cost of Maryland and Chincoteague off the Virginia coast where we watched the wild ponies run. He took us to beautiful quarries in the Maryland woods filled with rainwater so treacherously deep and so freezing cold that the thrill of the immanent danger somehow enhanced the beauty for us.

He showed us the breath-taking grandeur of the Appalachian Mountains, making sure we knew exactly how they were formed. And unlike the student in Al Gore’s film, I knew for sure that the continents fit together like puzzle pieces from the time I was five. He took us to the glorious beaches of the Maryland/ Delaware shore- Bethany Beach with its ghostly row of lighthouses and Rehoboth with its powerful waves and wonderful scruffy sand dunes. We camped a lot. My father even liked to camp in the snow, and he would take us to the beach even if a storm was threatening. I began to get an impression of a glorious, gorgeous, seemingly endless abundance and beauty- fresh, cold, wild, limitless abundant life, long before I ever heard about Jesus.

My father, the confirmed atheist, accidentally gifted me with a deep spirituality through his great love of creation. My mom finished off the job by taking me to church when I was 8. But I felt my first stirrings of the holy as I walked through tall trees on the way to fetch our food out of an ice-cold creek while we were camping in the mountains of New Hampshire. Surrounding me, singing along with me, lifting up my child’s heart as I skipped along, I felt something as huge as the sun and as familiar as my own soul. I knew God was right there- was all around me.

This still recurs for me every time I find myself walking down a wooded path, birds singing and nature glorying around me, and I feel myself being fed by the great roaring pristine abundance of the air, the trees and the sun.

As we talked with the bishop this past week those of us who were clergy in Marin had to admit that the secular world was way ahead of us in stewardship of the earth- in awareness of the fragility of the planet, and the vital importance of sustainability. But our bishop suggested that perhaps there was a place for us in this holy work. He urged us to open people’s eyes to the holiness of creation, to recognize the sacredness of our duty toward it- to make it Holy work. And perhaps can be our job as Christians in this post-Christian culture

In our reading of today, and in almost every story of Jesus after the resurrection, Jesus is at first unrecognizable. In the road to Emmaus story, he walks right long with the disciples and they take him for a stranger. In a post-resurrection story from the gospel of Luke, Jesus suddenly appears to them saying, “Peace be with you,” and they think he is a ghost.

In the appearance to Mary Magdalene, she is just fresh from a conversation with two angels, when Jesus addresses her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Who are you looking for?” How in the world could she fail to recognize him? He stood before her. He spoke to her. And yet she mistakes him for …the gardener (John 20: 11-18). And in our Gospel story today, after fishing all night and catching nothing, having lost their beloved teacher to a torturous death, another dawn was breaking for the disciples, perhaps not unlike that first Easter morning. A stranger is standing on the beach and calls out to the bedraggled disciples, “Children, you have no fish, have you?” And they don’t recognize him.

They take him for some anonymous fisherman, just as Mary took him for some anonymous gardener. And we have mistaken our precious planet earth for our own personal garden, our own personal harvest of fish. There is unimaginable abundance in this world of ours, but it is not, alas, infinite.

Jesus’ ministry in the Gospel of John begins with unimaginable abundance- the turning of vast amounts of water to vast amounts of very fine wine. This miracle brought forth the first recognition of who Jesus was. And John’s gospel ends with a great miracle of abundance as well- the vast amounts of fish that allow the befuddled disciples to at last recognize the risen Christ.

I believe that we have to be the miracle that wakes up our own souls, because Jesus has no other hands or feet than ours at this point. St. Francis took Jesus literally when he said- “Go forth and preach the Gospel to all creation.” And so Francis preached to the birds, the rocks, to insects. He took care of his fellow creatures, moving a tiny worm off of a path and out of harm’s way, saving a wolf from being murdered by the town folk. Francis also said “Preach the Gospel at all times, and if necessary use words.”

It is this gospel of no words that we need to preach- this cruciform willingness to have less and love more. To recognize the amazing extent to which we really are part of the whole, and what we do does make an enormous difference.

Here is a quote from a theologian you are all familiar with:

Human beings are part of a whole, called by us “the universe.” A part limited in time and space. However, they regard themselves, their ideas and their feelings as separate and apart from the rest. It is something like an optical illusion in their consciousness. This illusion is sort of a prison: it restricts us to our personal aspirations and limits our affective life to few people very close to us. Our task should be to free ourselves from this prison, opening up our circle of compassion in order to embrace all living creatures and all of nature in its beauty.

This is from the writings of that wild eco-feminist, Albert Einstein.

In a really annoying twist of fate, I am now commuting for the first time in my life. Just as the severity of Global warming has really hit my consciousness, I am driving my vintage Volvo 35 miles every time I come to work, packing ever more carbon into our fragile atmosphere. There must be a reason this is happening to me at this time. I have to assume that God is giving me my wake-up call. I am staring Jesus right in the face and not seeing him. I am living in the little bubble of illusion that what I do has only to do with me.

In our reading from Acts, we hear the beautiful story of Paul’s road to Damascus experience. He had been a proud pious Jewish man- well versed in all the scriptures, utterly sure of himself. And in his great assurance he was a leader in the persecution of those upstart heretics, who belonged to “The Way,” as early Christianity was then called. But on the road to Damascus, Paul had a profound experience of the risen Christ. Right in the middle of his commute, he fell flat on his face. His previous blindness turned into real blindness, and he had to continue on being led by the hand, stumbling along unseeing. He kept on going in his journey to Damascus, but in a very different way for a very different reason. He went to meet his teacher.

Because we have not been able to recognize and treasure the glorious abundance that we have been gifted with, we are in danger of losing it. But who will be our teacher? Who will lift the scales from our eyes? I believe our own lives must be our teacher. The glory of nature must be our teacher. And our growing awareness of our harm we do to that glorious abundance must be our teacher. And God will surely open our eyes and God will surely help us as we preach the wordless gospel and walk the sacred way of cherishing and protecting this unimaginably abundant Earth for ourselves, each other and our children.