The Big Wow


Sermon for Saturday and Sunday, Fenruary 15 and 15, 2015, by the Rev. Martha Kirkpatrick, Rector.  Please see PDF for attributions. 

What a mountaintop experience! There is nothing to say, really, except WOW! In the face of that, theological explanations, biblical analysis, interpretations from the cool remove of this place seem meaningless. Peter, James and John get a glimpse of the divine. They know it by its beauty, love and truth. Of course they want to stay right there. Up there, in such lofty company, able to see where they’ve been. And then there’s the prophet Elijah ascending to heaven in a whirlwind, in a chariot of fire.  What glorious visions! I’ll call it the big WOW!

And what’s next? We know what happens to Jesus, Peter, James and John. They come down the mountain, to healing and teaching, traveling throughout the countryside, into the hard and dangerous reality of the Roman Empire, as Jesus points his face toward Jerusalem, and the others with him. And the prophet Elisha will certainly face his very real challenges.

As we end this season of Epiphany, this season of light and revelation, we have had revelations of God in scripture. And hopefully they help us understand that we too are given glimpses of the holy, the divine oneness, the great mystery of which we are all a part in our own lives. And then, we come down the mountain. Thud. Back at it. Back to work and school and car payments and commuting and irritations large and small. Interspersed with a little entertainment.

Moving from the mountaintop into Lent

Soon we move into Lent. As if life didn’t feel Lenten enough. When giving up something for Lent just feels like the grumpy old church, reminding us that “we are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs from under the table.”  And taking on something for Lent feels well nigh impossible. You want me to do. one. More. Thing. Why can’t we just stay on top of the mountain for a bit longer?

At our Vestry meeting last Tuesday, During our reflection time we talked about Lent, and how we each were thinking about observing a Holy Lent, and what we were hoping for this Lent. There was a lot that was offered, and also some honesty about how that question felt in the middle of very busy lives — raising children, multitasking, demanding work, the challenges of daily living, just trying to stay one step ahead — it’s enough that I get to church on Sunday!

I get it. To observe Lent feels like squeezing one more thing into an already full day. To make more time for prayer? when I already am vaguely uneasy that I don’t really know how to pray anyway?

So, let’s forget about making space for observing Lent for a moment. How do we make space and time for God into an already full day?

I have Sir Jacob Astley’s prayer before the Battle of Newbury framed on my desk. It reads “Lord, I shall be verie busie this day. I may forget Thee but doe not Thou forget me.”

How do we make time for God?

Or is it not so much about making time for God, but making our time, God’s time? Bringing ourselves, in the midst of whatever it is we are doing, into an awareness that we are in God’s time?  That God is in the midst of our time, and our space? the Rev. Pam Fickenscher writes about her experience as a new mother. “From the moment [a child comes into your life] time begins to move in new cycles.” She notes that familiar events like Christmas take on new meaning, as it becomes “baby’s first Christmas.”  It’s the same time, and yet it is imbued with new meaning.

Making our time God’s time is to be conscious that we are in the presence of the holy. it is to make a practice of bringing our full attention to whatever we are doing, our intention to be in the presence of the Holy Spirit. It is prayer to do whatever it is we are doing with attention, with intention to be in the presence of God. We spend time with our child as they are digging into their homework, aware of the presence of the Holy Spirit, and it is prayer. Mother, child, and the Holy Spirit. A holy and blessed Trinity. A meeting with co-workers and you become suddenly, deeply aware that one of them is carrying some deep pain. It is prayer. You’re serving up some St. Barnabas’ stew at Emmanuel Dining Room and you experience a deep knowing that you and the person you are serving are connected in a holy circle of being where the giving and receiving flows out and back again. Every task, even the most mundane, done with full attention to be in the presence of God becomes a moment of prayer.

‘The three essential prayers’

The writer Anne Lamott brings her own inimitable approach to this living with intention in her book Help, Thanks, Wow. The three prayers that cover just about everything.

“Help” means to acknowledge that we are not in control. It is to turn our lives over to God. It is the prayer when we are at the end of our rope. We have big moments of feeling like we’re at the bottom of a well, and the daily challenges. It could be a moment in conversation with another, wanting it to be a conversation guided by love and not having a clue how to do this and so you send up a silent prayer, “help me Lord.” It is a counter-claim to our culture’s claim of individual self-reliance and control. It is a confession that we need God and each other.

And then there are “Wow!”s large — a transfiguration or a sudden flash of vision, an epiphany, — and the everyday. I had a wow moment last Sunday, singing in the Spirituals concert with the New Ark Chorale and six other groups. Moments when I felt part of something beautiful and holy, something bigger than I was. “Wow” moments happen in music a lot, and in the beauty of the world. The muffled silence after the snowfall last evening. Moments that stop you in your tracks, that catch your breath. Thank God for the Wow’s. They keep us in wonder and awe. They keep us from sliding into a cynical complacency that “we’ve seen it all.” They are the polar opposite of “whatever.”

And thanks? Thanks for this very moment. Thanks of gratitude, relief, a surprise gift. Thank you for good health. For my family. Thank you that I found my wallet. For being alive. “Thanks” leads to gratitude. Which leads to action and behavior and habit.

Help me Lord! Wow! and Thank you thank you thank you! are ways of bringing ourselves into full awareness attention into this very moment. This full awareness attention can become — in fact it needs to become — a habit, a practice. It needs to be a practice so we can be the Spirit-bearers we are called to be. And because the stakes are very, very high. The philosopher Hannah Arendt explores the origin of evil. Writing after the Second World War, when thousands of everyday people participated in one way or another in the most grotesque killing systems, she places evil not in personal characteristics but in systems of power enabled by banal, implicit acceptance. In Origins of Totalitarianism, she asserts that bad actions reach the magnitude of “evil” only when we stop questioning them, when we allow them to become boring. When we fail to pay attention.[2]

The mountaintop experiences, the glimpses of the holy, the moments of transcendence, are pure gifts. We experience the holy and we know what it feels like. We know it as love, and we know it as truth. We know that there is more going on here, that our lives are more than the daily tasks of living, and time is more than just one thing after another, more than the means by which we accomplish or acquire until we die. We come to see our time as God’s time, all our moments are shot through with holiness. We recognize it. And we carry it back down the mountain. Where the world needs it. AMEN.