Strangers on a Plane

Suffering and compassion. Humanity and divinity are found right in there.

BeautyBeyondBones

There are really two types of people when it comes to airplanes: there are the talkers, and then those who would rather get a root canal than socialize with the person seated next to them.

Admittedly, I am the latter. Earbuds in, sunglasses on – I am a fortress. I am simultaneously praying for a) the plane not to go down, and b) my seat mate to not try to drum up small talk. Priorities, right?

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But I love flying, I really do. Riding in an airplane is always a bit of an adventure. You never know who you’ll be sitting by, and for a couple hours, you’re completely out of control, and unplugged.

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I was flying back to Ohio today from New York. And there are always a lot of emotions, seeing the intimidating city skyline of Manhattan slowly morph into the lush and fertile Ohio River valley…

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“I am here.”

Sermon written for July 2, 2017; Church of Saint Anselm of Canterbury, Shoreham NY

Preached sermon streamlined!

Romans 6:12-23

Matthew 10:40-42
Genesis 22:1-14

God tested Abraham. He said to him, “Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” He said, “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains that I shall show you.” So Abraham rose early in the morning, saddled his donkey, and took two of his young men with him, and his son Isaac; he cut the wood for the burnt offering, and set out and went to the place in the distance that God had shown him. On the third day Abraham looked up and saw the place far away. Then Abraham said to his young men, “Stay here with the donkey; the boy and I will go over there; we will worship, and then we will come back to you.” Abraham took the wood of the burnt offering and laid it on his son Isaac, and he himself carried the fire and the knife. So the two of them walked on together. Isaac said to his father Abraham, “Father!” And he said, “Here I am, my son.” He said, “The fire and the wood are here, but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?” Abraham said, “God himself will provide the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.” So the two of them walked on together. When they came to the place that God had shown him, Abraham built an altar there and laid the wood in order. He bound his son Isaac, and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood. Then Abraham reached out his hand and took the knife to kill his son. But the angel of the Lord called to him from heaven, and said, “Abraham, Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” He said, “Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him; for now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.” And Abraham looked up and saw a ram, caught in a thicket by its horns. Abraham went and took the ram and offered it up as a burnt offering instead of his son. So Abraham called that place “The Lord will provide”; as it is said to this day, “On the mount of the Lord it shall be provided.”

_________________________
“O my father, am I really to go with you?

And help you with the sacrifice to the Lord?

You’ve never taken me before, and I’ve always wanted to go.

Why do you weep, Mother? We won’t be long.

I’m growing up, now, and it is right that I go with Father.
Father, where is the lamb for the sacrifice?
Father, what are you doing? Father —

Father, how can the Lord want me? I am only a child.

How can you worship a Lord who wants your child?

Father, there is terrible laughter in the air like thunder.

You are not my father. I am afraid of you.

I will close my eyes. This rock is hard and cold against my bones.

This rock is. . .
Father. I heard thunder again.

You are untying the ropes which cut my skin.

You are laughing and crying, and the ram in the bush

is waiting with frightened eyes.

He does not understand, either.”
(Madeleine L’Engle, Sacrifice of Isaac)


[Caravaggio (or Cavarozzi), 1598-1603]

Madeleine L’Engle’s poem, Sacrifice of Isaac, painful to read, painful to hear, bears witness to the struggle of almost numberless generations to take in and bear with, if not to comprehend, the story we hear today from the 22nd chapter of the book of Genesis.  
What is this? God’s chosen, Abraham, bidden by the God who has called him and given him the promised son in Isaac, to take that son to a remote mountain and there to end his son’s life with his own hands, by violence. Sarah, the unlikely mother of Isaac, left back at home, old and approaching death; left to mourn the unthinkable loss she is about to sustain. The loss of her son. The loss of relationship with her husband. And God’s chosen, Isaac, the son of laughter, surrounded now only by tears. The tears of his brokenhearted mother. The tears of his father, torn in two by this test. And Isaac’s own tears. How could the boy, as L’Engle’s poem brings forward, possibly understand what was happening there on Mount Moriah?
And for that matter, how can we understand?
Rabbi Steven Nathan wrote a five-poem set on this terrible text; one poem each in the voice of Isaac, of Sarah, of Abraham, of God, and of the Rabbi himself, standing in our place. They are powerful and heart-rending and do not spare us a moment of the fullness of the truth, and I commend them all to your reading. But we, here, on this Independence weekend, are called painfully to realize that in the end, for the people God created, there is no absolute independence. There is ultimately only relationship. There is only ultimately relying on one another. In the end there is only trust, no matter what the cost. And this is nothing less than frightening.  
I have to cry out to you the Rabbi’s poem, the fifth and last one on the Binding of Isaac, written in his own voice, and so in ours:
V. What About Me

Why Who What

I do not Understand

Why I should Care to

They are 
Foreign

Strange

Unknown

I pity them
Father

Sacrificing son and self

Mother

Sitting in silence

Enabling the plot

Son

Risking all

For what

God

Self-centered

Needing to know

The Truth

Even if 

It kills

Them
Leave me alone

I do not want

To know you

Yet
I must

I do

For you are all

Me

I am all

Of you

One
No 

I refuse to believe

This Truth
I would not

Sacrifice

For any God
I would not abandon

The miracle child

I never thought

Would be
I would not

Risk my life

To prove 

My love
I would not

Ask

The unaskable

Of those 

I claim

To

Love

To serve

My needs
Or

Would I
Have I

Will I

Again

Don’t we all

No

I refuse

To believe

With complete faith

That 

This

Is
Yes

I know

With complete faith 

How could it not

Be
Love

Sacrifice

Pain

Surrender

Fury

Resignation
All 

Part of life

For all

For God

Our image source
We God

Do not want 

to cause 

pain 

we still do

We God

Do not want

To know 

The limits

Of

Faith love

We still do

We God

Do not want

To give up

The self

The ideal

To find

The truth

Within

We still do

We God

Do not want

To sit

Passive inactive

Allowing 

The plot

To unfold

Before our eyes

Within our heart

Unable to

Stop it

We still do

Why

Must this be

Why

Can it not

Be simple

Why can

There be

No pain

No test

No sacrifice

No surrender
Why
Because
Without 

Pain

Testing

Sacrifice

Surrender

Life 

Would not

Be

Life
Without these

We would be

Isaac

Without laughter

Never able to leave

Home
Abraham
Staying at his tent

Welcoming guests

Never going

Beyond

Comfortable borders
Sarah

Protecting

Her precious possession

Never letting him

Go 

Grow

Live
God

Not knowing

How far

Each of us

Will go

What

Each of us

Will do

To surrender 

To 

Divine will

To continue

The story

Of creation
Still

I do not like them
Yet

I love them

For I know 

Them

I know

Their actions

Feelings

A part of

Me

I

A part of

Them
Remember

With all this

Suffering

Was 

Not

Part

Of 

The plan
Suffering

Comes

Only

When we

Deny

That everything

Everyone

Is indeed

Part 

Of the plan
As long

As we realize

We are

One

We are

Part

Of something greater

Not apart

By Our Selves

We may experience

Pain

But suffering

Will stay

Away
Perhaps

This is

What God

What they

Are trying to teach
I still

Don’t like 

The players

I still

Don’t like

The plot

But

Now 

I watch it

Unfold

Within and around

I see

Their traits in me
Through the

Pain

I know

There is something

Greater

I must

Learn
Still
I wish

There were

An

Easier

Way
Maybe

Next 

Year

God, God’s Word, do not always make it easy on us. As one of our eucharistic prayers says it so well, we do not come here for solace only, but also for strength. And how we need it. How we need it when we touch upon the mystery, the third rail of faith. I would like, as I think you would, to remain nearer the surface. Let me concentrate on the painting of the building behind me, on the questions of dollars and cents that face us, on the practical stuff. No matter how hard that might get, that stuff does not insist on diving deep inside us and tearing us up like this word of God from the very first book of the Bible. This is the Scripture that moves us to put our hands gently over the childrens’ ears. 

 Who is this God who says, “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains that I shall show you.” And who is this Abraham who “rose early in the morning, saddled his donkey, cut the wood for the burnt offering, and set out and went to the place in the distance that God had shown him.” And who is this Isaac, this boy who says in trust of the father he loves, “The fire and the wood are here, but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?” as he carried the wood for the sacrifice on his own shoulders.  
This is so far beyond paint and dollars, beyond the everyday (thank God!) that we want to run. But if we are going to be here at all, the starting place necessarily is to let this story cause us to shudder and to shake. As have these two poets and their two poems.
In the extraordinary 6th chapter of his letter to the Church at Rome today, Paul the Apostle insists on something that doesn’t ring well in our 21st century ears. He insists: you have to be servant to something or someone in life. He even says ‘slave’ instead of servant; even harder to hear. You can be slave to sin, Paul writes, and follow it to lasting death. Or you can be slave to God, and follow God to lasting life. Early in today’s reading from Romans there are words that might shed light into the darkness of Mount Moriah, where Abraham went as the slave of God to offer up his son, and where at last the voice of God cried out, “Abraham, Abraham, do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him . . . .” Paul’s words are these: “. . . present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life . . . .” (Romans 6:13)
Present yourselves to God as God’s servants, trusting beyond all rationality that God, by whatever horrific twists and turns on the way, will only lead those who follow along the way to life. The road to life, as Jesus knew and Paul preached, goes through the country of death along the way. So present yourselves to God as those brought, carried, moved, taken from death to life.  
But how? How do I ‘present’ myself to God? How do you? How, in the midst of full lives, do we find God, or better, allow God to find us? How, when we might rather not get into the deep ‘heart’ stuff where God deals, bring ourselves around to stop and allow the encounter with God, which is more real than anything else, to happen?
Look in the three verses of Matthew’s Gospel that we hear today. Six times in those few lines rings one word: Welcome. Welcome welcome welcome welcome welcome. Welcome.
We present ourselves to God by welcoming God into our everyday lives, with both reverence and fear, as well as faith and love. And we welcome God in the way Abraham welcomed all those whom he loved. Three times in the story of the binding of Isaac, someone calls Abraham’s name. The first and third times it is God who calls. The central time it is Abraham’s son Isaac who calls. And each of the three times, Abraham readily responds with one word in his own tongue, Hineni.
“Here I am.” “I am right here.”
There is depth in this single word. To his God and to his son, each crying out to him, Abraham replies as their servant: “I am here. I am here with you. I am here for you. I am for you.” In this way, Abraham presents himself to God and his son Isaac. In this way, Abraham welcomes them into his life, even in this moment of pain and drama. Learn the word and use it: Hineni.
There are echoes of Abraham’s ‘hineni’ in the traditional greeting offered by the Natal people of Africa to one another when they meet one another along the way. When they meet, one says, Sawa Bona, “I see you.” And the other responds, Sikhona, “I am here.” Between those greetings they pause, and for a long period, look into one another’s eyes in silence. Then they speak the words again, now trading places, “I see you.” “I am here.”
There along African byways the Natal are presenting themselves to one another. They are welcoming one another. And not in shallow fashion. In those words, sawa bona and sikhona, they are deeply acknowledging one another’s existence, humanity, uniqueness, and importance. They are doing what Abraham did on that continent generations and generations earlier, “Hineni dear God! Hineni my son! I am here with you. I am here for you.”  
Those tribesmen and Paul the Apostle are pointing us in the direction of who we are called to be and what we are called to do in relationship to God and to each other. Through every ordinary day, and in moments as horribly extraordinary as the binding of Isaac, we are called to be people who welcome the full reality of God and one another into our lives. We are called to be people who trust in God and in the people of God no matter what is asked of us or how difficult it is to understand. We are called to be women and men who rise each day to say in our words and by our deeds to God and to all our brothers and sisters, “Whatever this day asks of me and whatever you may need of me, I present myself to you. I welcome you. I see you. I am here for you. I am here.”
This Independence Day weekend, as we give thanks for all that we have been given in this land and in its history, God’s unrelenting word powerfully declares that we are free for the sake of one another. We are free to be blessing to one another. We are free to encourage one another through life’s painful visits to Mount Moriah, to support one another when God asks a lot of us. We are free to remind one another that we are servants of God and to unite with one another as the presence of the living Christ in our time and place.
“Whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple – truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward.” (Matthew 10:42)
John P. McGinty

Anniversary

I am here in bed at the end of the anniversary of my birth today.

It has been a long and tiring day, and absolutely full of the kind of blessings that enrich my life.  I celebrated Eucharist this morning above Long Island Sound at Camp DeWolfe with this year’s summer staff as they completed their weeks of training.  What an amazing group. How full of faith and love and grace.  I spent time with the dedicated (and small) staff of Saint Anselm’s, celebrating the retirement of one of our own, a great woman who has been a sign of welcome and love to the children and parents of the parish for the better part of three decades, day in and day out.  And tonight I sat here in the rectory in conversation with four of this summer’s camp staff, two from the UK and two from Poland.  What a blessing to sit and talk and get to know young people from these nations who are full of life and possibility.  

A staggering (to me) number of people shared happy wishes on Facebook and by text and on Messenger and by phone – family and friends, near and far.  Some I see often.  Some I have not seen in decades.  How could anyone deserve such an outpouring, I say? But you don’t have to.  It is, truly, all grace.  Gifts given and received.

Two songs sum me up at this point in my living.  One is the Canticle of the Turning, expressing the certainty that the world will turn to the way intended by its Creator and Redeemer.  Justice and mercy will in the end embrace all that is.  I need to hold this truth in the midst of a daily world that speaks a different lyric indeed.  

The other is the 19th century tune of Robert Lowry, How can I keep from singing?  The beauty there is the seeing deeply that all in the end is so beautiful, so good, so filled with the love of God that no other response is justified save a lifelong hymn of praise.

Thank you, Lord, for life and for every breath; for every word spoken and heard; for every heart open and for the blessings that lie ahead . . , especially when they cannot yet be seen.

Seeing

I opened my eyes

To the same leafed trees

Beyond the same windows,

But now the light streamed 

From within them 

And the life shone there.

I said, “My God, You are here.”

And came the ancient 

Unmistakable 

Words,

“I am.”

Just Thinking

I’m sitting in our empty church where we intended to pray Eucharist 20 minutes ago at 9am. That’s a change of our usual weekly schedule, so folks arriving for mass might have been expected to be few. 

Just around 9, the children and families of our Academy arrived for the day. They gather first in the church and there was life and laughter and movement here only minutes ago. 

It’s hard as a pastor not to note the contrast of the two moments, especially as one with a love of the liturgy. The important question is always in this space, and in this heart, as to how in our day real pastoral care and true prayer relate. I know they do. One of the moms bringing her daughter this morning to school shared the joyous good news of her own mother’s freedom from cancer. And she attributed the gift precisely to faith and to prayer. 

So faith and a reverence for prayer are not gone. They’re not missing. 

The thing rather is the struggle to integrate the settled ways of old church with the lives and legitimate needs of the people of God living this moment. The ‘give’ (as needed) likely needs to be on the ‘old church’ side. An institution, and it is that, does best in having a genuine loving generosity toward all God’s people. Anything less makes little sense and leads nowhere where there are young voices and laughter and possibility in bright eyes.  

Commencement of Hostilities

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Arriving at Job’s Pond
On a late May evening
Of a day filled with the Word and the work,
He spied the plot of land
That days before had masqueraded – poorly – as a lawn
Now in the preposterous pretense – worse yet – of being a Prairie.

Procuring his semi – trusty mower,
He took to the task.
The grass, if that is what it might be called, was not impressed,
And the insect life living therein, had never spied a sheet of paper proclaiming this attacker the owner of their home.

The oldest among them, seeing the tool at hand,
Called out to the others incredulous,
“It’s a hand push-mower. He thinks it’s 1948. Attack! We can send this rake scaping!”
And so they did.
And so he did.

The Quest

I dreamt

I was in an insane asylum 

Looking for a girl I knew. 

Not a mental health facility; 

this was the old-fashioned huge affair, 

endless wards,

Bed after bed; 

wandering children of God with vacant eyes.

The beds too were empty 

Each one only 

with a note

On the pillow 

Sharing word of that 

Person’s unique pain. 

I woke under a pier

At an amusement park 

Asleep on a thin mattress,

And the tide lapping 

Around it’s edge. 

I struggled up, 

Found my knapsack already soaked by salt water, 

And rose into the light 

To continue the quest. 

[Danvers (MA) State Hospital, ca. 1893]

Memento mori.

Sonny’s yearbook from high school
Is down from the shelf
And he idly thumbs through the pages
Some have died
Some have fled from themselves
Or struggled from here to get there
Sonny wanders beyond his interior walls
Runs his hand through his thinning brown hair

~ Paul Simon, “The Obvious Child”

How is it that some days, some hours, some periods of time seem to carry with them an obvious theme, sometimes even a theme song?  These can be happy and light themes or heavier and deeper.

This morning we prayed at our church the funeral of a 29-year old man, Eric, son of gracious parents, oldest of four children, smart, funny, interested in the times we live in, creative and talented, dead of a heroin overdose.  A life too short, one of all too many being ended daily now by the vise of this particular addiction.  Outside after the Mass I watched friends embrace his just-younger sister, literally hold her up as she sobbed in their arms.  I watched his parents lean heavy on each other; faces tired; their son’s whole life and all his love outlined in them.

This afternoon I made my way into Brooklyn, passed through Canarsie, parked and walked through double doors into a school hall and to the front of that hall past people who sat in groups talking.  I stood in front of a casket and prayed over the body of one of my classmates from the North American College in Rome, Monsignor John Brown. Those days, featuring us in our 20’s, John strong and tall, serious and brilliant: they seem only weeks ago.  And they are.  Many many many weeks ago.  We have not been in one another’s company, perhaps since the mid-80’s.  Today, I had to go there.  I had simply to be there for a moment and to pray, in thanksgiving and in hope.  I knew no one there except the deceased.  I prayed, signed the visitors’ book, picked up a prayer card, and left.

As I drove away I thought of both of these men, gone in their own time and in their own way, into the mystery that I can only believe is a love stronger and deeper than most of us ever even intuit here.  My life has intersected with each of theirs in vastly different ways and degrees.  Now they know one another in ways I cannot begin to imagine.  And there is solace.  And there is fullness.

Here we carry on, and we wonder the strangest things.  As I drove away from that school hall where John’s body lay in the midst of his people, a thought unbidden began repeating in my mind like a mantra: “John, I hope they loved you.  Did they love you?  I hope they loved you.  Did they love you?”  I’ve no reason to think they didn’t, that in fact a mutual love joined priest and people in God’s sight.  But still, the question rang.

I carried both of them with me in thought and prayer here to the pond.  I cried for them. It carries more meaning than words,  And then Paul Simon sang in the car on I-684 of Sonny, his ‘obvious child,’ who sits with his high school yearbook and realizes

Some have died
Some have fled from themselves
Or struggled from here to get there.

And as the late winter woods, dry and bare, rush by on either side I realize that each of us, Eric, John, and me, we all appear in those few words.

 

Every Step

Every step of the way to heaven is heaven, so said Catherine of Siena from whose church I traveled Pennsylvania by interstate 84 which passes through unpopulated snow-covered hills clothed with naked trees. 

I felt like I passed through the northern terrains of the Italian peninsula or through the memorable passages of Switzerland. I came in time to New York and there unexpectedly heard echoes of the city of Rome at Christmas in the 80’s. 

Why does the mind draw parallels between place and place and moment and moment? How does it drive back the curtain of decades, wipe clean the surface of an untended window and make it all new again?

I suppose to make sense, to make meaning, to affirm creation as creation and life as more than nonsense. That is a good making and a worthy creation; a profound sense of fit. 

Yesterday I drove from death through memory to musing. The trip was well worth it and someday will need be reversed. In each direction every step is heaven

jpp mcginty 2/15/17