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.