January 05, 2020
Are you ready now? The good witch asks the farm girl.
Yes, she answers, but hesitantly. Behind her stand beloved friends: a tin man, scarecrow, and lion. She draws a deep breath and says, her doubt resolved:
Say goodbye Toto. Yes, I’m ready now.
Then close your eyes, and clap your heels together three times.
Eyes closed, she taps the ruby slippers.
And say to yourself “There’s no place like home. There’s no place like home. There’s no place like home.
I’ve told you before that the father of my first year college roommate was Robert Penn Warren, the novelist. I don’t believe I have previously mentioned that the great uncle of my second year roommate was L. Frank Baum, who wrote The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. I’ve used All the Kings Men and The Wizard of Oz for sermon fodder so often through the years I may owe my roommates royalties.
I left home, here, for college in 1973. My father’s bishop’s diary entry for that September 3 reads: “Labor Day weekend with family. Down to two children at home. Tomorrow it will be one.” September 4: “Put son Christoph on the plane for Amherst College. Felt somewhat like the old rancher in the classic Norman Rockwell picture.” “Breaking Home Ties” is the name of the painting. A sad father sits at the bus stop with his eager son, who is leaving for State U.
This eager son boarded the plane and was homesick all the way to Massachusetts. Four years later I collected my diploma and came right back home.
On June 26, 1982—my sister Patty’s birthday––I was ordained deacon here. I was the only ordinand that day. As my home parish, you presented me for ordination. Somewhere down deep in the Cathedral archives there must be a vestry vote recommending me for ordination. My father came out of retirement to preach, from this pulpit, about the life and work to which I had been called.
So kneeling on those steps, X marks the spot, is where I started out in ordained ministry, a yellow brick road that wound around the state: south to Pine Bluff, west to Van Buren, back east to Little Rock (St. Margaret’s); up north again for some extra years of school, then south back to St. Margaret’s, and finally right back here, home base, six years ago.
We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.
That is what happened here. We saw It’s a Wonderful Life, the play, at the Rep two weeks ago—a great show, and apt. What brought me back to Trinity initially was loyalty like George Bailey’s. His father died and the Savings and Loan was in trouble. George took over because that is what loyal sons will do when the chips are down. It wasn’t what he planned or had thought he wanted, but he knew the business was important to the town. What he found out was that he hadn’t really known the half of it.
What I’ve found out is that I hadn’t really known the half of this Cathedral. For example, I took its beauty for granted growing up. I didn’t get that Trinity is the southern lady who works hard to look that good—and then extra hard to make it all seem easy. “How dear to me is your dwelling, O Lord of Hosts” . . . and she sings like Maria Callas.
I know now Cathedral people are a smorgasbord of American Episcopal humanity that delights, entertains and frequently inspires a dean. I know if Clarence the angel were to wave his hand and recast life in Little Rock as though this Cathedral had never been, the detriment to Little Rock, and to each of us, would be profound. Before, I hadn’t seen that the way I do right now.
There are chapters in the lives of priests and churches, framed by excited arrivals and poignant exits. The day we left Trinity, Van Buren, son Christoph, age four, wrapped his arms around a tree in the church yard and held on for dear life, refusing to leave. My last Sunday at St. Margaret’s, I remember being the last one out that afternoon, leaving my church keys on the desk for my successor, and turning out the lights. Starting a church was hard work every day, so I felt relief, but beneath that I felt lonesome, like the rancher in the Rockwell picture. I just told you how I’ll feel tonight—leaving home again.
Partings remind us of the awful truth that nothing mortal is forever.
Thomas Aquinas said it:
We desire the good things we have to last whereas in this life they pass away. Indeed life itself passes away, though by nature we desire it and wish it to last and shrink from death.[i]
For the antidote, listen to this morning’s collect.
O God, who wonderfully created, and yet more wonderfully restored, the dignity of human nature: Grant that we may share the divine life of him who humbled himself to share our humanity.
I love that prayer both for what it asks and what it tells. It tells us Christ is a two-way street. God shares our life so that we may share his. God stoops, we rise. The mortal is imbued with immortality. Karl Barth called this exchange “the fact indicated in the name Immanuel.” In Christ, Bonhoeffer said, all our prayers are answered yes. What this prayer asks is simply: “Let it be thus.”
Our life is a journey in God, to God. Like a magnet, our destination draws us. According to Aquinas, the goodness in the world itself is God’s magnetic power. You know that once I find a quote or way to make a point I like, I will serve it up verbatim, ad nauseam. Here one more time is my two cents on goodness:
What is attractive is by definition good. Apple trees are drawn, as it were, to goodness in the soil and rain and sun. A bullfrog is drawn to the goodness of a well placed lily pad and the answering sound of an amphibian lady. Our instincts are similar. As humans we are in most respects just the same as other creatures. What sets us apart is our power to think. As humans, as Aquinas puts it, we can by nature “grasp the meaning of goodness and so be attracted to goodness as such. [ii]
Even people who have never heard of Christ can feel and respond to that attraction. It is faith’s precursor. Together with the Holy Spirit it is why we never walk alone. Christ leads us through the goodness of this world—ephemeral, fragmented––back towards reunion with goodness at its source: eternal, whole.
Even the stones bear witness, he said.[iii] This is the yellow brick road that leads us to the Emerald City, without fail. We have shared the road as cathedral and dean for these past six years. For Julie and me these six years have been a treasure chest.
“There is no place like home. . . . there is no place like home . . . there is no place like home.” The truth in that mantra is more than sentimental. No place on earth is quite like Trinity Cathedral. Three years ago we together painted a self-portrait, a head to toe description. What we saw in the mirror was several “core values,” the magnetic goods that draw us forward as a church. Listen:
Beautiful worship that feels welcoming and warm.
Community that cares and values every sort of person, with our different perspectives and ideas.
Spiritual formation leading deeper into faith, deeper into hope, and deeper into love.
Artistic expression through the roof.
Community engagement for the betterment of Little Rock, our home—and for the common good..
Cathedral identity as a beacon of faith in the city and for the Episcopal Church throughout Arkansas.
January 19, 2014 was my first Sunday here as interim dean. (After I had been here a year my Uncle Pat Keller, a retired priest in Cody, Wyoming, sent me this text: “Are you still a fake dean?” I told him yep, still faking it.)
That first Sunday the sermon text was Isaiah:
I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.”
That was God’s promise to his servant Israel. I applied it to you.
Likewise, God said to his servant Trinity Cathedral: I give you as a light to the city, that my salvation may reach from Saline County to the River, and from Scott to Lake Maumelle.
You were the brainy scarecrow, the warm-hearted tin man, the courageous lion. Already, it was all there within you. All you wanted was an old fake wizard to come home and remind you.
At the end of the sermon, I said Trinity Cathedral “let’s stand up and shine.”
And for the next six years, and counting, that is what you did.
[ii] Ibid., 178.
[iii] Luke 19:40