'Tis Good, Lord, To Be Here

Whether you are a long-time member or seeking a deeper connection with God, progressive, theologically-grounded teaching can be encouraging. St. James clergy and renowned guest preachers speak to issues of faith and public life that both challenge preconceived notions and call to action.

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February 23, 2020

Last Sunday After The Epiphany

"He touched me, ...... And now, I'm different from before, As if I breathed superior air— Or brushed a Royal Gown— ." So wrote Emily Dickinson in 1862 in a mystical poem about the love of God. ‘He touched me’.... and now I’m different from before. In the year 2001 God touched my aunt as she sat on an armchair watching television one grey winter afternoon in the North of England. She wasn’t saying her prayers or reading the bible or even feeling particularly religious - she doesn’t do mindfulness or Spiritual direction - she just goes to church. And that afternoon she had sat down to watch a cookery program called ‘two fat ladies’ about how to cook pasta with heavy cream and cognac - something your dean would, I’m sure appreciate - and yet ... suddenly, like a ray of sunshine coming through the window ‘he touched her’... as if she had breathed superior air or brushed a royal gown. . She described it as if she was being consumed by light – and yet it wasn’t a light , she was overwhelmed with the love of God reaching deep down into her soul like a warm fire – and yet it wasn’t a fire - it was like a powerful covering sheltering her – and yet it was not a covering - it was filling her very being and telling her beyond all doubt that she is beloved - This is my child, the beloved, on whom my favor rests. She was called, chosen, desired. ‘He touched me’. Now at this point you need to know that my aunt is more like Joan Collins than Teresa of Avila. She even looks like Joan Collins with big wavy Dallas hair – she dresses like an American - if I can say that - classy, stylish, coordinated - She has fabulous skin complexion which she has worked hard at and spent far too much money on, and the rocks on her fingers are so big she has to insure them separately. And, did I tell you - she had just celebrated her 70th birthday when God touched her. And from that day onwards she knew that she was different from before. But how was she different? What had happened to her? Why had it happened? What did this extraordinary feeling mean? She was confused, troubled, a little anxious as she pondered all these things in her heart. Luckily - some would say providentially – just a few days later she found herself sitting next to an unsuspecting methodist minister on a long train journey down to London . Good, my aunt thought she poured out her story... The methodist minister - who was probably hoping to catch up quietly on her latest crime novel - listened to my aunt’s story carefully - thought a while - and finally said... ‘ be careful, you are in great danger’. And then - just like a crime novel - she stood up, got off the train, and left my aunt deeply worried. When my aunt got home she could not let this rest, so she made an appointment to see the chief pastor at her local methodist church - a man of a certain age and experience. She sat in his office and told her rather complicated story .... worried that he would think that she is just another religious junky! To her great amazement the methodist minister did not seem at all surprised – in fact he didn’t even seem all that interested – he just said ‘ have you ever tried prison visiting?’ Prison visiting - well – of course – the answer was ‘no’ –- - it had never crossed her mind. Prison was a hidden world to her and she rather hoped it would stay that way. But – she couldn’t shake off her experience - this transfiguration feeling - the warning that she was in great danger - the love of God – she signed up, and was trained, got official clearance and began 17 years of prison visiting as part of the chaplaincy ... only giving it up on her 87th birthday. And it wasn’t any old prison visiting - it wasn’t the middle-classes who had committed petty theft and tax fraud. My aunt became a visitor in the secure wing of a high security prison listening to the stories of some of the most violent sex offenders in the land.... not for the faint hearted. Twice a week she sat with men who had abused, murdered and tortured their victims. She would listen to their stories - and filled with a deep well of the love of God she would look past the man and see the hopeful, trusting and innocent child that they had once been - created in the image of God - before they had been abused, hurt, rejected, and had had their childhoods destroyed by others - and my aunt loved them. Not for what they had done, - of course - not for what they had become, but for what they once were - children. And of course that was her peculiar gift - that is why God had called her and yes it was extremely dangerous. Now I tell you her story for two reasons – the first is obvious - My aunt was 70 when she was called - she served for 17 more years - because God is not fussed by age. No child is too young, no adult is too old. So let no one say that a teenager – perhaps a teenage virgin in Nazareth - or perhaps an autistic 16 year from Sweden for example – has too little life experience to be taken seriously or to be called by God.... and let no-one say that an 80 year old has too much life-experience – if you know what I mean – to be taken seriously and to be called by God. God’s Holy Spirit is wilder than the wildest wind and the fire blows and burns where she will. But the second point is more challenging and I am afraid that at this point the plain pasta of my sermon needs some heavy cream and cognac. We are in great danger. In 1956 the Bishop of Masasi, Trevor Huddleston published a seminal book against South African apartheid entitled ‘naught for your comfort’ Quoting a poem by Father Brown’s creator, G.K Chesterton. ‘The point I am trying to make’ – he writes - ‘ is that Christian love is so searching, so demanding, and so revolutionary in its force that it has no kind of relationship to the thing which is so often called by its name. No more than Christ of the Gospels is like that shadowy, sentimental figure so often invoked by Christians who want to live comfortably with injustice and intolerance’. In other words, - if we are to be serious Christians and climb up the high mountain of faith and if God then touches us and we see the transfiguration light then we will be in great danger. Jesus knew this - Peter and James and John came to know it too. Jesus set his face towards Jerusalem after this experience and set his face towards betrayal, arrest and crucifixion. Peter left his livelihood and his family by the shores of the Sea of Galilee and was crucified upside down as an old man in Rome. James was beheaded in Jerusalem - only John lived on and died in his bed. It was Tertullian who famously said that the Blood of the Martyrs is the seed of the Church - yet it is far too easy to forget that he is talking about real blood, real martyrs - and with all our privileges of living in a safe and free society it is far too easy to forget that Christians are still being martyred today because of their faith .... their blood is still the seed of the church. But if we are not to be beheaded on the beaches of Egypt as were the 21 young coptic martyrs, and if we are not to be burnt to death in our church as were the 100 Christians in Mali last year, or if we are not to be one of the 11 Christians who are martyred each and every day in North Korea, Afghanistan, Somalia, Libya and Pakistan, then we should still ask ourselves the question - what is my martyrdom? What must I give of my life for the Gospel? And let us be quite clear, if it doesn’t cost us anything in time and money and sacrifice - if it doesn’t hurt just a little - then we have not yet got it right. My aunt - aged 70 - had to give up two full days a week, as well as training and supervision in order to answer the call. She had to say no to friends and family who wanted her on her prison days. She had to strike the days into her agenda and stick to them. There was a cost. Just as we must strike days in our agendas and say no to friends and family, no to our freedom, in order to attend church on a Sunday morning, in order to keep the fast of Lent, in order serve our neighbor. There is a cost in the radiant splendor of the Transfiguration. And yet .... Emily Dickinson likens these martyrdoms, this personal crucifixion to an ecstatic, ravishing union with God. Into this Port, if I might come, Rebecca, to Jerusalem, Would not so ravished turn— Nor Persian, baffled at her shrine Lift such a Crucifixial sign To her imperial Sun. Or as my aunt would say - I thought my life was over at 70 - I had lived my life and I had buried two husbands - I was alone and was watching afternoon TV - and yet God gave me life - the most dangerous, rewarding, agonizing, precious life she had ever known. Tis good, Lord, to be here. and so - finally - to the Transfiguration. Who knows what Peter and James and John experienced upon that high mountain. Who knows if the scholars are right and this is really a post-resurrection sighting misplaced in the chronology of the Gospel? Who knows whether it ever happened at all – or whether such mystical revelations happened often in the presence of Jesus? Who knows why Elijah and Moses were there and what they spoke of in the brightness of that light?