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January 06, 2019

Forty years ago this spring, my life’s direction veered towards a vocation in the priesthood. By that September I was enrolled in seminary, a postulant for Holy Orders. A year from now, next January 4, I turn sixty-five. The following day, the twelfth day of Christmas, is a Sunday. On that Monday, I will retire.

We had a funeral here two days after Christmas. For the service I chose a reading I had never used at a funeral before, from Lamentations, chapter 3.

The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases,
his mercies never come to an end;
they are new every morning;

From now to January 5, there are 365 mornings, including what’s left of this one, to see what mercies God will have in store for us with me as Dean. We’ll not waste them.

The funeral on December 27 was for a talented young woman who had grown up here. Caroline Chesnutt Hanna is her name. My homily began like this:

YouTube throws songs at us that it thinks we’ll like and not long ago it gave me “For a Dancer,” by Jackson Brown, on an old fuzzy video of a tribute concert for Lowell George of Little Feat. George was one of the great music talents of my generation who lived too recklessly and died too young. Brown wrote “For a Dancer” for someone else who’d died too young. It’s a lament.

I don't remember losing track of you
You were always dancing in and out of view
I must have thought you’d always be around
Always keeping things real by playing the clown
Now you’re nowhere to be found.

This is a funeral for a dancer. This church and its school were Caroline’s stage when she was young. As dancers go her form wasn’t willy-nilly. It was trained, precise, stretching for perfection. She was a ballerina.

Bernard Taper, writing on ballet, calls it “an ancient code of movement,” striving for “a particular kind of beauty.” “I would like to show,” George Balanchine once said, “that these bodies of ours, which most of the time are used for dull and ordinary things, can be beautiful—really beautiful.” The purpose of the classical technique was to realize the “grandeur and grace that was potential in the human form.” But, as Balanchine also used to say, “first comes the sweat… then comes the beauty—if you’re very lucky and have said your prayers.”

“For a Dancer” is a beautiful song, the prettiest Jackson ever wrote in my opinion. About death, the lyrics are agnostic. This is a verse I didn’t quote at Caroline’s service.

I don’t know what happens when people die
Can’t seem to grasp it as hard as I try
Its like song I can hear playing right in my ear
That I can’t sing. I can’t help listening.

I didn’t quote that part because, concerning death and what comes after, I am not agnostic.

There is a saying that goes around the church: “the opposite of faith is not doubt, but certainty.” I first heard that from the writer Anne Lamott. Only half of it is true. It is true that faith is not the opposite of doubt, but nor is faith the opposite of certainty. I am following Thomas Aquinas here, because his thinking wasn’t willy-nilly. It was classical and trained, striving for the true like a ballerina stretching for an ideal of beauty.

You have heard this from me before, but let’s review. For Aquinas, certainty is knowledge. I know that such and such a thing is true when I see why its true. I see why two and two make four. With respect to that, my mind is at rest and can move on to other things. Doubt is the opposite of that. Doubt is when, with respect to such and such a thing, my mind is equally divided: it may be true, it may be false—I lean towards neither view. If the mind begins to lean, we call that suspicion. Now I suspect that such and such a thing is true, but understand that I could very well be wrong. Leaning harder, I now have an opinion. “I’d bet that such and such a thing is true.” For example, I would bet that when we die we are not destroyed; instead, we see the Lord. The amount anyone would bet depends upon the strength of their opinion. I would say I’d bet my last forty years of work and study on the opinion that when we die, we live.

Actually, it is more than an opinion. Faith, according to Aquinas, is a “hybrid state,” blending knowledge and opinion. Unlike doubt it leans, sometimes very strongly. The firmer the faith the more it leans. That is the case with our faith that when we die we live. There are many good reasons for believing it and they come new every morning.

Today is the Feast of the Epiphany

My announcement at the beginning of this sermon was a (small e) epiphany, the disclosure of something that, had I not told you, you would not otherwise have known. You might have suspected, strongly or firmly, for reasons such as: “Well, he’s getting old,” or “His father retired at sixty-five,” or, “I bet he wants to try to write a book.” Maybe there was a betting pool. But now you know.

In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.

That is the Epiphany of Christmas, the birth of God Incarnate. Paul says “In former generations this mystery was not made known to humankind.” Some might have suspected or opined what God is like, but now, through faith in Christ, in that blended way, we know.

My ministry has been normal, with two exceptions. One exception is that I carved a large chunk of time out of parish ministry in order to go back to school and earn a Th.D. I thought it would take five years, which is what it took for Dr. Hoke. I’m a slow learner and it took me ten, which is the average. That is a long time to put your head in books, especially when you aren’t going to write books and teach seminary classes, which as it turns out I haven’t done. Nine tenths of what I learned those extra would bore you.

For me it has worked as ballast. I don’t have certainty on things about which we can’t be certain, but I am certain now, coming out of that pile of books, that we can be confident in faith. That steadies the boat in rough seas.

The other way my ministry has been an exception to a rule is that I’ve carried it out all in one state, Arkansas. For an Episcopal priest, that is a little bit outside the norm. I wasn’t opposed in principle to the idea of answering a call to another state—but whenever I opened one of those search committee envelopes or emails I never felt anything other than: “nope.” I don’t know why this is, but whatever the reason, it runs deep. I was called to stay put.

Looking over the horizon, I will be retiring in place in Little Rock. Come next year, I will need to worship elsewhere for a good while, staying out of the next Dean’s hair. Our granddaughter and our pledge will stay with this church.

Why? Because Trinity Cathedral is a light in Little Rock, a beacon of faith. Julie and I met and fell in love here. We were married at this altar, as were our children. Rosie will be baptized at this font. I was ordained here in 1982. For us, this is home—and I more than suspect that when God finally calls for us up yonder, we’ll be here.

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.