Heritage Sunday

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October 28, 2018

Today is “Heritage Sunday,” a day to celebrate the lives and ministry of:

Seven parishioners who have been members of Trinity for seventy-five years or more: Martha Campbell, Lawson Deloney, Pete Maris, Ed Penick, Jr., Frances Mitchell Ross, J.D. Simpson, and Belle Spatz; and of:

Eight parishioners who have enriched our lives on earth for 90 years or more: Ted Bailey, Kathryn Bost, Joanne Cooner, Mary Fine, Adolphine George, Catherine Hepinstall, Bill Pumphrey, and Nell Stephens; and of:

Three parishioners who done both ninety years of life and seventy-five years of ministry at Trinity: Marguerite Gamble, Gordon Wittenberg, and Betty Terry; and of:

One organist and choirmaster, Charles Rigsby, long and well loved here and throughout the church in Arkansas.

Trinity’s heritage began with our founding on October 19, 1884, by Bishop Pierce. That start (a birthday of sorts) brings to mind something Karl Barth said about people. On the day we are born we have a present and a future, with no past. Thereafter, our past gets longer and our future shorter by the day. Barth wasn’t counting heaven, which is on a different clock. On our clock, Trinity has 134 years of past, which is a nice length—and, we pray, a much longer future.

One of our honorees, Betty Terry, owns a past reaching back to the 1920s. A week ago last Wednesday, October 17, her birthday, Betty’s great-granddaughter and namesake was born—Madeline Elizabeth Borné -Williams—whose future stretches forward to the 22nd century, easily. In the heritage of Trinity Cathedral, that is a powerful one-two punch.

One woman who would have been honored today, Jane Wilson, was buried from here on Monday. In Jane’s funeral, our heritage of faith wrapped her death in transcendent, hopeful beauty.

Heritage is treasure.

Consider Charlie Rigsby, at the organ. In Charlie at the age of 27, Dean Higgins saw energy and talent and hired him on the spot, bringing a musical life to this Cathedral the likes of which is seldom heard, not only but especially with children. The musical and spiritual seeds Charlie planted in lives going back to forty years ago continue to flower here, even as new seeds are being sown by Victoria, who is one of Charlie’s many protégés.

Heritage can be baggage too, of course. Our southern heritage is a glaring example. We southern states were on the wrong side in the Civil War, and again in the struggle after that for civil rights for black folk. From that bad history, we can’t hide. Shelby Foote, in a low moment in the sixties, said he was ashamed to be southerner—when for most of his life the South had been “the one thing [he] really ever loved.” “Good Lord,” he swore, “when I think what we could have been, the heritage we perverted!” Then he began to list things he long had loved about the south: “the misspent courage, the hardcore independence. The way a rich man always had to call a poor man “Mister.”[i]And that brings us back to treasure. As for me, even with the baggage, I would rather be from here than anywhere. I am speaking now both of the South and Trinity Cathedral.

[i]Letters, 125.

It is time to quote Faulkner about the power of the past. Everyone has heard this: “The past,” he wrote, “is never dead, it isn’t even past.” The line is from Requiem for a Nun, which means Faulkner’s most quoted line is from what may be his least read novel. We invoke it when we want to make the point that actions in the past determine present possibilities. It is true of actions bad and good: baggage and treasure. The past is sticky that way.

When I was a young priest, a wise old lady up in Crawford Country said to me: “Show me a rooftop and I will show you a heartbreak.” When I arrived here, now an old priest, five years ago, I quoted her and added: “show me a steeple and I’ll show you the same.” Trinity has lived its share of troubles and heartaches going back to 1884. We accept the troubles and the heartaches with the treasures and forever they are part of who we are. There is no other way to be a church or human being.

Just as Faulkner is cited about the power of the past, Alfred North Whitehead is often quoted on the importance of the present. “The present is the sacred moment,” he said. I picture a surfer riding the front of a big wave, in the space underneath the curl, creating movement and direction. The wave is our past, the power to create movement and direction in the present moment is our freedom. The analogy only goes so far, though, because unlike surfers we change the volume, power, and movement of the wave—our heritage. We are making it right now.

Jesus’s heritage was rich with prophets like Isaiah, kings like David, priests like Aaron. They shaped the ways he understood his ministry, and how other people saw him. “Are you the king?” they’d ask. The answer was yes, in a whole new way.

People also saw him as a priest. Priests were go-betweens for humanity and God. If you sinned or needed prayers you paid a visit to one and he would represent you,  offering up a pigeon or a lamb on your behalf. Then the priest would turn around and speak for God to you. “Go in peace,” he’d say, “your sins are forgiven.” In the gospel, we see Jesus doing priestly work for Bartimaeus, a blind beggar who sees him and shouts: “Have mercy on me Son of David.” Some baggage in his heritage had cost Bartimaeus his eyesight and he wants it back. Jesus gives it to him. “Go, your faith has made you well,” Bartimaeus asked and that’s all it took. In Christ, the burden of his past was lifted.

Christ is priest in a whole new way. “He is able for all time to save those who approach God through him,” the Epistle to the Hebrews tells us.  You approach God through Christ, directly, and not through the Cathedral clergy. That is good because we clergy are a weak and intermittent connection, as the electric switches in our quirky elevator. Christ’s connection is reliable and strong.

Once I saw my father the bishop sick in the hospital. This was in Washington DC and I’d gone up because we thought he might die. By the time I reached him he was recovering—still very weak but now lucid. A young big-city doctor came in, a little puffed up with his own importance. He hadn’t been at doctoring long enough, I guess, to learn humility. He patted my father on the arm. “I hear you’ve got connections,” he said, now pointing up, ha ha, not meaning it. Dad gave it some thought and then, meaning it, replied: “I do—but not any you don’t have too—and anyone.” Chris is the connection, the go-between for humanity and God.

Dad recovered from that illness, but before we all left Washington my mother gathered my sisters and me to tell us something. She said “I wanted you to know that I am seeing some changes in your father. I’m afraid that Alzheimer’s disease is probably the cause.” It was, and that was the beginning of my father’s ten-year Job experience.

Job was a good and faithful man whose happy life had imploded in catastrophe. In our biblical heritage, this is a crucial story. Like Adam and Eve, Job is universal: he stands for you and me. Potentially, his catastrophes are ours. In the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburg, in the agony of Matthew Shepherd and his family, and in the Yemen famine, there is Job.

As we just heard in our reading, at the end of his story, Job’s fortunes are restored. But this kind of happy ending isn’t close to enough to make up for the pain that Job had endured—and it does nothing for the others who were killed or hurt in the devil’s menu of catastrophes Job and his household suffered, and that recur in human life.

I have known this my whole life because as a young child I knew Job in the priest who baptized me and encouraged my father toward the priesthood. Our families were close. His daughter was about the same age that I was, and she was poisoned from eating paint chips from the window by her crib. Before it started, her life was ruined. For humans and churches, as our past accumulates it needs healing in the worst way. “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me,” it cries.

But how can the past be healed?

In his little novel, The Great Divorce C.S. Lewis envisions the answer from that other clock. Lewis paints a scene in heaven’s foothills. A guide gives the tour to a new arrival, who on his way in had passed through a town that wasn’t heavenly at all. Its ghostly inhabitants were lost in their conceits and pet amusements. From what they know of heaven—as close to them as Pinnacle Mountain is to us—these dead don’t approve of it at all. It doesn’t deserve them, they know, and it won’t satisfy their need.

For ghosts like that there may be no hope, but for everyone else there is—and for the painful past, there is. The guide explains, and in doing so reverses Faulkner’s insight. Yes, “the past isn’t even past,” as Faulkner said. From the guide, we learn that the future isn’t wholly future.

Good and Evil when they are full grown, become retrospective. . .  That is what mortals misunderstand. They say of some temporary suffering, ‘No future bliss can make up for it,’ not knowing that heaven, once attained, will work backward and turn even that agony into a glory.

Then we remember that we have seen this. Every spring, in our heritage of faith, we re-enact it through Holy Week leading up to Easter. Easter Sunday makes bad Friday Good, retrospectively. In that transcendent moment, the future of the universe is told. The Easter wave hits the heavenly shore and, instead of breaking on the sand, builds strength, reverses course, and comes roaring back through time.

King David’s appetite got the better of him. What he wanted was good, but not for him.

In the Summa Theologiae, Thomas Aquinas affirms that love was God’s reason for the making of the world and that his goodness permeates creation—but in pieces, disassembled like a jigsaw puzzle. He writes: “The perfect goodness that exists one and unbroken in God can exist in creatures only in a multitude of fragmented ways.”  

So David was drawn to a fragmentary good. His desire was one that we instinctively appreciate, because without it none of us would be here, but the wrongness of his acting on it was severe. Our appetites cause trouble when we are heedless of the good of others, and the puzzle as a whole.

What is love? “Willing the good” of another person, according to Aquinas. David’s motive wouldn’t count as love. He wanted Bathsheba for himself. Perhaps her feelings were reciprocal, but David left her husband’s good, his kingdom’s good, and other puzzle pieces, neglected on the floor. Inconveniently, a pregnancy occurred. Plan A was to give Uriah, the husband, grounds to believe he was the father. When that plan failed the king successfully arranged to have him killed in battle.

Evil, according to Aquinas, is a corruption of the good. “Power tends to corrupt,” as Lord Acton warned, and in this story we see why. Only a king could be tempted to sin like David did, because it would take a king to pull it off. David’s failure is common to men in high places, shadowing the lives and times of several of our recent presidents and even Martin Luther King. Like kings and presidents, prophets are susceptible.

When I started SUMMA, the high school theological debate camp, I named it partly for the Summa Theologiae––“the Summa,” for short. SUMMA, the camp, highlights faith’s intellectual dimension. According to the Summa, the book, our intellect is like an appetite. As David’s eye was attracted to the beauty of Bathsheba, our mind’s eye is drawn to truth. We call this attraction “reason.” Aquinas writes; “As the good denotes that towards which the appetite tends, so the true denotes that towards which the intellect tends.”

If truth is the sun, sometimes our sight of it is fogged by other appetites. David had broken three of the ten commandments (the sixth, seventh, and tenth, if you are keeping score) but he was oblivious. Nathan the prophet found a way to lift the fog. Lawyer-like, he caught the king’s attention with the case of a poor, honest sharecropper and his beloved lamb. David’s first job had been tending sheep, so he could relate. A selfish plantation owner took the poor man’s lamb to feed his party guests. The king was livid. “Is this for real?” “For real.” David’s appetite for justice burned. “That Simon Legree will pay!” he swore. Coming from a king that was a verdict, not an empty threat. Nathan had him. He drew out his mirror and held it to the king’s face. Look close, he said. You are that man. “The moment of truth.”

“We must no longer be children,” Paul writes to the Ephesians. “We must grow up,” he says, by “speaking the truth in love.” At SUMMA, the camp, the highest honor, “the SUMMA Prize,” is awarded to the camper who best shows us how that’s done. The prize is one thousand dollars. That is one way to make our point that truth and love are intertwined.

Often, finding truth takes expertise: science, logic, math. Aquinas’s expertise was logic and it took him years to learn. Not everyone would have the skill even if they afford the time. By God’s design, love requires no expertise. Everyone can understand and anyone can do it if they will. “It is evident,” Aquinas writes, “that not all are able to labor at learning and for that reason Christ has given a short law. Everyone can know this law and no one may be excused from observing it based on ignorance. This is the law of divine love.”

For a counterpoint, Franklin Roosevelt once compared our nation’s moral progress to our scientific progress unfavorably, which might suggest that finding truth is easier than loving. According to Jon Meacham, Roosevelt had drafted a speech to give on Thomas Jefferson’s birthday, April 13. This was 1945. The speech was discovered on Roosevelt’s desk in Warm Springs, Georgia, April 12, the day he died. This is FDR:

Today, science has brought all the different quarters of the globe so close together that it is impossible to isolate them one from another . . . Today we are faced with the preeminent fact that, if civilization is to survive, we must cultivate the science of human relationships—the ability of all peoples, of all kinds, to live together and work together in the same world, at peace. . . . Let us move forward with strong and active faith.

That’s from Meacham’s book The Soul of America: The Battle for our Better Angels. From 1776 to now, the book tracks our national ups and downs in answering to what what Lincoln called “the better angels of our nature.” Meacham wrote the book because he thinks we need to listen much more closely to those better angels now. Who could disagree?

Aquinas and Roosevelt were both right. Aquinas, because only an Isaac Newton could discover calculus; and Roosevelt because, once discovered, truth is ours to keep. Libraries are full of it. Love is more like breakfast—we have to make it every morning. Aquinas called theology the “Queen of Sciences” because it's the science that has to reckon with both the library and the kitchen.

SUMMA, the camp, is a crash course in truth detection. I tell the students: “I didn’t bring you here to tell you what to think, but to show you how.” They learn the three parts of an argument: claim, evidence, and warrant. Claim: ‘What are you trying to get me to believe?’ Evidence: ‘What are you giving me to go on?’ Warrant: ‘How does the evidence support the claim?’

For example, claim: I say “Tomorrow it will rain.” Evidence: You ask “Why should I believe that?” I answer: “Open the window and take a whiff.” You open the window. “Oh,” you say, “the paper mill.”  Warrant: By what logic does this smell support my claim? It’s called an “inference from sign.” Does the Pine Bluff Paper Mill cause rain? No, but it lets us know the wind is from the south, and southern winds bring moisture from the Gulf of Mexico. Summer heat means afternoon convection: hot air rising from the earth. Add moisture and boom! Summer thunderstorms.

In one sentence in our gospel reading, Jesus makes two claims: (1) God sent me.  (2) Faith in me is a sign of God’s activity in the heart and mind of the believer. “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent,” he says. Again: “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.” Smartly, people ask Jesus for evidence to support these claims. Moses gave us evidence, they remind him, out there in the wilderness. Our ancestors were hungry and thirsty. Miraculously, he gave them manna for bread and water from a boulder. So show us. “What sign are you going to give us that we may see it and believe in you?”

For John, the gospel writer, this question is like a student’s who had dozed off in class. It is summer school, the air conditioning is out and the windows are open. The air is hot, moist, and heavy with that familiar smell. The boy wakes up and asks the teacher to answer something she had just explained in detail: “So why should we believe that it will rain tomorrow?”

Jesus’ questioners had been dozing. In John’s gospel, signs followed everywhere he went. In Cana, he turned water into wine. In Capernaum, he healed a dying child; in Jerusalem, it was a sick old man too weak to walk. The latest sign had been the most spectacular so far, and these people who were asking for a sign had either seen or heard about it. From five loaves and two fish, five thousand hungry appetites were satisfied. In a fog, these interrogators fail to draw the inference from sign.

Jesus backs up and tries another tack. With Moses still in mind, he offers an analogy. Analogies are warrants that work by comparison. “This is like that.” You know what its like to hungry and be given bread? They nod, still digesting loaves that he had given. I am like that he says. “Those who come to me will never hunger and those who believe in me will never thirst,” he promises. He isn’t talking now about digestion, but about that activity of God in human hearts and minds––also called the Holy Spirit.

By this, he puts us on watch for good that answers to a longing deeper than hunger even, and more thrilling even than that dizzy dancing feeling that draws us to each other sometimes. Powerful and necessary though they are, these appetites, they point to only fragments of the good we need as human beings. We are made for more.

We don’t need faith to know this. Aristotle knew it. Reason, he taught, is like an appetite for good things greater than our emotional enjoyment and even our physical survival.

We do not live by bread alone. Reason shows us that much. Faith, hope, love—the activity of God in the minds and hearts of all believers––now show us more: eternal truth, everlasting goodness, and transcendent beauty. They are like coffee, eggs, and bacon cooking in the kitchen early in the morning, smells wafting up the stairs into the bedroom as we’re dressing, getting ready for the day.