Monday, March 24, 2008

Washed in the Blood of Betty, and The Flight of the Ladybug

Sermon for Easter Day, March 23, 2008
The Rev. Este Gardner Cantor
Church of Our Saviour, Mill Valley

Every Easter is like the first day of the rest of your life- the best Easter you have ever had. But I am going to tell you the story of an Easter of mine which, like the Easter story itself, was a scary story with a happy ending.

I was supposed to deliver a children’s sermon that Easter, and the day before, as often happens, I didn’t have any good ideas. So I started to make lunch. I sliced a cabbage open in preparation for making coleslaw, and there, in the very center, miraculously unharmed but unmoving, was a tiny ladybug.

Now that ladybug had been in that cabbage in the refrigerator for three days. But of course it was springtime, being Easter, and the window was open. A ray of sunlight shone on that cabbage, and that ladybug began to move and breath (I guess) and she spread her wings.

And since the window was open, she ascended into heaven.

Now that was the homily I was going to tell, but something happened on that Easter morning that prevented me from telling it. It was Easter Sunday and the church was packed, and a favorite senior of mine, very full of years, was sitting right up front. For reasons unclear to me still, she approached the altar, tripped and fell, glancing her head on the communion rail. And there, on Easter Sunday, directly in front of the cross, in the middle of the church, she lay bleeding from a head wound. I always sat up front, so I was the first to get to her and I held my hand over the wound (which was really bleeding) and tried to calm her.

The priest’s husband is a doctor, and so the priest started shouting, "Jonathan! Jonathan!" Jonathan was downstairs with one of his kids, and the longest five minutes of my life began to tick by. Someone called 911 on their cell phone, and then no one knew what to do, so we did what Episcopalians always do when they don’t know what to do: we started singing. We sang the Taize standard “Stay with Me,” swaying and holding hands and praying. Jonathan finally appeared and told me to run to the kitchen to get some ice, which I did. My hand was literally full of blood, so I first went to the sink to wash it. As I did I thought, “Here it is Easter morning and I’ve been washed in the blood of Betty!”

I came back and Betty was already feeling a little better. Then, like a flock of rescuing angels, the emergency workers surged down the aisle of the church and took care of Betty. They bandaged her, comforted her, and supported her as they all walked back down the aisle. Betty smiled and waved a queen as everyone applauded.

I later thought of the whole thing as an Easter allegory; when we fall down, even if we are wounded, with a little help from our friends and a lot from the Holy Spirit, we can arise. And maybe, like the ladybug, even find our wings and fly.

The Passion of Joan

Sermon for Good Friday
The Rev. Este Gardner Cantor
Church of Our Saviour, Mill Valley

It was my mother who taught me about Good Friday. She was well acquainted with the story, being the daughter of a preacher. She told me that at 12:00 noon on the first Good Friday, the sky grew dark, and that Jesus hung on the cross for three hours until he died in that darkness. I remember blinking out at the bright Maryland Springtime, wondering how the sky could ever turn black at mid-day. But there did come a time for me when the sky turned black in the middle of the day, and that was the day my mother died. There were lots of stations of her cross, but I was absent for most of them.

The first station would have been the accident, when she was struck by an out of control vehicle after her busy day of work as an executive secretary in Washington D.C. The first station was rendered almost immediately into scripture:

A reading from the Washington Post, Friday, Oct 25, 1974:

A Washington woman was injured yesterday when she was struck by a metro-bus as she was crossing Pennsylvania Avenue at 15th Street North West, Metropolitan police said. The woman was identified as Joan R. Gardner of 520 “N” St. NW, an employee of the Association of Registered Bank Holding Companies. She was taken to Washington Hospital Center where her condition was listed as critical.

Here ends the reading.

Everybody else got out of the way, but she apparently didn’t turn her head to see an on-coming bus. I always wondered: was she so lost in thought that she couldn’t turn her head and look up, even to save her life? Or did she make a sudden dash for eternity for reasons eternally known only to herself?

Station two would have been the arrival of the ambulance, and the rescue workers. They had difficulty identifying her until someone found her purse, which had been thrown some distance away.

Station three was the waiting room where I sat with my dry-eyed siblings and my mother’s best friend who wept non-stop. I hugged her, feeling guilty about my own dry-eyed state. I was however, comforted by my brother when the doctor told me my mother would have no cognitive functions left.

Station four was the hallway where my father and I walked, meaning to see my mother in the ICU. Just outside of the room, at station five, a well-meaning nurse, playing the part of Simon of Cyrene, wrong-headedly offered to carry the cross for me. She had just seen my mother and she said, “Her blood pressure is dropping and her condition is not compatible with life.” I let her carry that cross and I fled, ever after wishing I had stayed and been with my mother at the last station as she died. Instead I have only my brother’s description of my mother’s beautiful face. She was all swathed with white bandages from her head to her toe, he said. So all he could see was white with the exception of her very blue eyes, which were open but unseeing. I have had a recurring dream ever since that she died peacefully in my arms, instead of all alone surrounded by doctors and machines.

I did make it to one more station of the cross for my mother, the station of ashes. No one else in my family wanted my mother’s ashes or knew what to do with them, so I brought them with me in my suitcase to California. I decided to scatter them in the San Francisco Bay, since I knew how much she loved it. I opened the container of ashes in the bright sunlight and I looked in. I saw a glaring bright whiteness- brighter than anything on earth could have bleached them. As devastated as I was I couldn’t help but see how beautiful they were. They looked like the ornaments of any sun-bleached shore- tiny fragments of seashells and delicate shards of the bones of fish and birds nestled in white sand. My mother had been transfigured, had been glorified, had somehow entered into the arms of all creation.

Even with that glimpse of glorification, of resurrection, I spend the next several decades in the tomb. I dwelt with death and with regret at my missed opportunity to be with my mother when she died for a very long time.

Several years ago I heard a wonderful sermon by Bishop William Swing the bishop who ordained me. He talked, among other things about death. He said everyone seems to have something like a little bag of death inside of them, pulled closed with fragile threads of string. He spoke of the death of someone he loved and how the sound of earth thrown on the lid of the coffin loosened those strings for him and let death slowly leak out. The sight of my mother’s ashes, and the memory of them, beautiful as they were, seemed to loosen those strings for me as well.

Then, shortly after I heard that sermon, I learned there was one station more for me to witness. I was asked to preside at the 7:00 AM Ash Wednesday service, which is something I had never done before. A kindly altar guild member warned me about opening the container of ashes too quickly. Be careful, she said. The nice silver container sticks and if you just pull it open, the ashes will fly out all over the altar and all over your face and the mood will be altered in a way that might sort of ruin the effect.

So at 6:30 AM, half awake but conscientiously trying to prepare, I decided to practice opening the container. Just before I did I remembered that container of my mother’s ashes. I wondered in the dim light of the chapel if I would re-experience my mother’s death- if the fragile strings of that little internal bag of death would loosen again. I slowly and carefully opened the container of ashes and was thunderstruck. What was in the container were not the ashes of death but the bread of life. I had switched the two silver containers and was now looking down at the communion wafers I was about to serve to the faithful.

I have had other experiences of resurrection in my life, but never so instant, so head-jerkingly sudden, so mocking of my tragic expectations. Rooted to the spot, I continued to stare into the silver container. I suddenly realized that this instant transformation had taken 32 years. Seeing that bread of life made real for me the answer my best friend had given me when I asked her why my mother had to die. “Este,” she said with great certainty and even joy, “Your mother is not dead.”

As I often have, I felt the presence of my mother there with me in the chapel on that Ash Wednesday morning. And I realized that although I had not been there at the foot of the cross, I was somehow there at the resurrection.

Friday, March 21, 2008

The Valley of Dry Bones and the DMV

Rev. Este Gardner Cantor
Church of Our Saviour Mill Valley
Easter Vigil Reflection, March 22, 2008

Just this past week I found myself wandering in my own version of the Valley of the Dry Bones. In this valley, with was actually a long and slow-moving line at the Department of Motor Vehicles, an Old Testament miracle began to unfold. Suddenly the dry bones in front of me began to quicken and move and all at one I surged forward and found myself in the Promised Land- right at the front counter. I smiled into the face of a very beautiful and very large woman with an enormous tattoo on her left bicep. She smiled back and bent to her work, preparing the form I was to fill out. As she did I tried to discreetly read the tattoo, but her sleeve was partly in the way. It said something about “My Girl” in a beautiful and flowery script, and then underneath it read “1952 to 2004.”

“It looks like you lost someone,” I said to her.

“Yes, I lost my mama. I got this tattoo to remember her by. She was just skin and bones when I decided to have it done, and you won’t believe this, but she said she wanted one too. When my niece went to get one last year she about had a fit, but here she was coming with me. So we went into the tattoo parlor and she said, 'I’ll go first in case it hurts.' And she got a tattoo about me.

After she died I always used to hug this tattoo (she wrapped her arms around herself, her hand cupping the tattoo) when I missed her. I still do.”

Misty (that was her name) had experienced the valley of dry bones. Those bones had told her there was no hope. Those bones had made her feel that she was cut off completely. But Misty had transformed those dry bones. She prophesied on her own skin in indelible prose and she breathed spirit into those bones. She had created something that had not only sinew but gloriously abundant flesh. And not only skin that amply covered those bones, but images of fruits and roses in juicy abundance. She created a garden out of desolation. Misty breathed life and spirit into into those dry bones and they lived. .

It is not likely that Misty was familiar with the poet Rumi, but her story and the story of the valley of the dry bones made me think of a poem of his:

Inside each of us there is continual autumn.
Our leaves fall and are blown out over the water. A crow sits on the blackened limbs and talks about what is gone.

Then generosity returns: spring, moisture, intelligence, the scent of hyacinth and rose….
There’s a necessary dying and then Jesus is breathes

Very little grows on jagged rock. Be ground. Be crumbled so wildflowers will come up where you are.

You’ve been stony for too many years. Try something different. Try surrender.


Thursday, March 20, 2008

Palm Sunday and The Sweet Strains of the Spiritual...

Palm Sunday, March 16, 2005
Church of Our Saviour
The Rev. Este Gardner Cantor

I heard someone recently describing the sound of a spiritual. It is a triumphant sound and a mournful one at the same time. Perhaps that heart-wrenching sound developed because those spirituals came from a population so steeped in pain that it had to aspire to the possibility of grace along with the suffering. Like the possibility of a joyful triumphant entry into a city, followed by an unimaginable loss.

Palm Sunday as we celebrate it today is a mixed up sort of liturgy, which contains thrilling heights and a devastating depth. We inherited a service that encompasses both the story of the passion of Christ and the story of the triumphant entry into Jerusalem.

Before the ancient rites were rediscovered, there was no Holy Week, and the week before Easter was the logical time to delve deeply into the experience of Christ’s passion- that series of events that led to his crucifixion, beginning with the garden of Gethsemane and ending with the sealing of Jesus’ tomb.

But sometime in the late 4th century, a female pilgrim named Egeria took a remarkable pilgrimage and left us a detailed account of what the ancient Holy Week observance was like in Jerusalem.

We have all been experiencing our pilgrimage through Lent, hitting our high points and stumbling into our low points. We have all been journeying toward Jerusalem; so let me tell you a little bit about the pilgrimage of Egeria.

Lucky for us, Egeria recorded her pilgrimage to Jerusalem and also lucky for us, she was a keen observer and fastidious recorder of her remarkable surroundings on this trip to the Holy Land. She was clearly learned and is thought to have been a nun or an Abbess from Northern Spain.

In the first part of her journal she describes the sites of biblical events, where people apparently were certain they took place: The very brook where Moses was found, the exact place where the golden calf was made, and even the very same burning bush that Moses saw, which she describes as “still green and still producing live shoots”.

But the latter part of her amazing journal is what impacts us more, and brought us the treasure of the ancient observance of Holy Week, one that the Eastern Church never forsook. Even today, the Orthodox churches, which have a different day for Easter, only celebrate the midnight Easter vigil, on Easter Eve. Easter itself is just another Sunday!

But Egeria’s journal began to bring the rest of the church back to the ancient ways. Her journal describes the observance of the feast of the Epiphany including a Night Station in Bethlehem, and all of Holy Week and Easter. Palm Sunday was described in detail with its formal procession with palms to the Mount of Olives and a veneration of the cross. It also described the celebration of Whitsunday, or Pentecost. Egeria apparently participated in all these ancient festivals with great concentration and joy, and a great retention of detail.

Her tones are filled with awe as she describes the Palm Sunday procession in Jerusalem about 1600 years ago:

"On the same day, at the ninth hour, they go forth to the Mount of Olives with palm branches; and there they pray and sing psalms until the tenth hour. And after that they go down to Eleona, and the bishop with them, to the church, where hymns and antiphons suitable to the day and to the place are said, and lessons in like manner. And when the ninth hour approaches they go up with hymns to the Imbomon, that is, to the place whence the Lord ascended into heaven, and there they sit down, for all the people are always bidden to sit when the bishop is present; the deacons alone always stand. And as the eleventh hour approaches, the passage from the Gospel is read, where the children, carrying branches and palms, met the Lord, saying; Blessed is He that cometh in the name of the Lord,

And the bishop immediately rises, and all the people with him, and they all go on foot from the top of the Mount of Olives, all the people going before him (with hymns and antiphons,) answering one to another: Blessed is He that cometh in the Name of the Lord. And all the children in the neighborhood, even those who are too young to walk, are carried by their parents on their shoulders, all of them bearing branches, some of palms and some of olives, and thus the bishop is escorted in the same manner as the Lord was of old. For all, even those of rank, both matrons and men, accompany the bishop all the way on foot.

Egeria’s excitement is apparent from her description of this beautiful re-enactment of the triumphant march into Jerusalem. And once these ancient rites were communicated to the faithful in Rome, you can see why they began to replicate it in their liturgy, as we have continued to do.

But there is a message in our hybrid of services today. We are observing the triumphant march into Jerusalem and the passion of Jesus, two things apparently at opposite ends of the spectrum of human experience. But this is life- this is what we find in our lives at so many junctures, as we attempt to negotiate our way through great suffering and great joy as human beings and as Christians. We find the necessity to hold the cross and the triumphant resurrection at once. The necessity to hold the very best in life along with the very worst- and to recognize that this reality is not irreconcilable- this reality is life.

Perhaps it was only Jesus who knew, in that triumphant but still humble entry, that what followed would be the cross, and the ultimate end would be resurrection. This is what we face in our lives all the time. And the only thing that gets us through is faith. Faith that the cross is not the end of the story. Faith that there is a reason to be triumphant. And faith that like the sweet strains of a spiritual, our hearts can hold these great contradictions without breaking.

Happy Feast Day to You, George Herbert!

Matthew 5:1-10
Church of Our Saviour

Today we have before us two of the loveliest gifts we could ever hope to receive: The beatitudes of Matthew’s gospel and the life of the remarkable poet and priest, George Herbert.

C.S. Lewis was in his most stridently atheist phase when he was urged toward his Christian awakening by George Herbert. In speaking of Herbert he said:

Here was a man who seemed to me to excel all the authors
I had read in conveying the very quality of life as we live it
from moment to moment. But the wretched fellow, instead
of doing it all directly, insisted on mediating it through
what I still would have called the "Christian mythology."
The upshot of it all could nearly be expressed, "Christians
are wrong, but all the rest are bores."
-C. S. Lewis

The beatitudes may have done something similar to their first hearers- they were confounding, infuriating, senseless- They took everyone’s dearest held and most jealously guarded priorities and turned them all inside out. But perhaps, after they were heard, everything else sounded boring.

And still today, Jesus, takes all of our worst fears and tranforms them, resurrects them, and in the process, transforms and resurrects us. In the deepest imagingable way, Jesus is simply saying again in the beatitudes the one thing that he and all the angels always said: “Do not be afraid.”

Do not be afraid. The subtext is love. The subtext is a God that loves us so entirely that there is no circumstance from which you will not be redeemed and ultimately, nowhere to fall except into the arms of a loving God. This a love so vast that there can be no poverty of spirit,in it there can be no more mourning. No one can be meek with love this big.

As Rumi would have it:
Don't look for me in a human shape
I am inside of your looking
No room for form
with love this strong

Redemption and mourning and poverty of spirit and the vast love of God were among the great themes that George Herbert brilliantly painted for us in his poetry. Beginning in his late thirties he was Vicar of a small parish near Salisbury, tending his flock with extraordinary devotion. He cared for the poor and he visited the sick and somehow managed to find the time to write an astonishing quantity of poetry. The poem we are probably most familiar with is a hymn we frequently hear. When I read it to myself I heard it differently than I hear it with music, and it did remind me of the beatitudes:

Come, my Way, my Truth, my Life:
such a way as gives us breath;
such a truth as ends all strife;
such a life as killeth death.

He wrote many poems in this style, (reams of them, in fact) but he also wrote in an incredibly practical and almost amazingly contemporary way. “The Country Parson” contains wisdom so down-to-earth that it is hard to suppose it is by the same author as the gorgeously spiritual words to that hymn we just heard. Perhaps these were more the quotes that inspired the very practical C.S. Lewis- the words that proved how Herbert “conveyed the very quality of life as we live it:”

Hell is paved with good intentions,
Living well is the best revenge.
None knows the weight of another's burden
Do not mention my debts unless you mean to pay them.

George Herbert seems to encompass both the world of the spirit and at the same time an utterly grounded and practical sensibility. He in fact described himself as “caught betwixt this world and grace”

Well, we are all “caught betwixt this world and grace,” and the question is, how do survive in this precarious state? Evoking C.S. Lewis again, how do we climb through the wardrobe door away from mourning and meekness and poverty of spirit to the blessing of a hunger, not just for food and for things, but for justice? Perhaps a beginning is to just take Jesus at his word in this beautiful litany of blessings we are given in the beatitudes. Perhaps if we allow ourselves even a glimpse of how deeply loved and blessed we are, it might give us courage to follow that simplest of suggestions: “Do not be afraid.” And if we can truly let that into our hearts, maybe the transformation from bereft to blessed might just begin.