Sunday, May 22, 2011
“The Easter Rapture in Ordinary Time”
22 May 2011
The Fifth Sunday of Easter
The Reverend Jonathan A. Voorhees
St. Joseph’s Chapel, Kent School
Ok, I seriously delayed writing this sermon, waiting until the very last minute. I figured, what was the point? I wasn’t sure if I would be here. I wasn’t sure if you would be here. 6:00 PM on May 21st yesterday was the time of the predicted Rapture, and I waited like a third former, procrastinating, hoping, and wishing, because of the expectation of the holiday of holidays. This headmaster’s holiday would be for all time. 6:00 came and went, as I knew it would. Even at midnight, I knew I would have to begin my sermon.
But, aside from the anticipated Rapture, this sermon was also hard to write for other reasons. Sermons pull things together—they provide a spiritual summation of sorts. At this time of year, however, we are preparing for release and, hopefully, fulfillment, at the end of the academic year. The center is no longer a center; it is wheeling outwards, eager for freedom, ready for the sweetness of summer. I thought the Rapture would save me, but instead I must turn, with the birds singing sweetly on the morning of May 22nd, to Emily Dickinson; to help me with my non-rapture, and my new understanding.
As Emily once said so well, as we stay in the here and now:
“So instead of getting to heaven, at last –
I'm going, all along.”
The season of Easter, which continues today on this fifth Sunday of the season, is a time of celebrating new life in its many forms. The resurrection appearances of Jesus provide the scriptural focus for our own experience of the season, and of spring itself. There is a sense of life’s bounty that comes to us in these resurrection stories. Yet today’s Gospel rolls the tape backwards, reminding the disciples, and us, of how we got here; that we are a people of promise from the past. We are reminded that we are part of a great plan—God’s purpose in Creation, and reality is on our side in the Easter victory. The Rapture is here with us, in ordinary time, right now.
In her collection Trilogy, the poet H.D. wrote about this different kind of Rapture, or regular second coming of Jesus Christ. She was an American poet who wrote in London during the daily bombing of World War II. Yet even in the rubble of London, she felt the Easter freedom of Jesus, a second coming that is always with us, even during the worst that humans can do to each other.
He was the first that flew
(the heavenly pointer)
But not content to leave the scattered flock,
he journeys back and forth between the poles of heaven and earth forever;
He was the first to wing
from that sad Tree…
In the confusing and wonderful center of this day, there are both endings and beginnings, as we anticipate the end of the year. We have two baptisms, for Kitter and for George, an infant girl and a young man, who has chosen to join the Christian faith all on his own. The journey with George Jiang has been a very interesting one. If you don’t know George Jiang, you’re missing out. In our discussions, we talked more about The Matrix than the gospels, as he prepared for this big day. But it is undeniable: Jesus is very much like Neo, and Neo is like Jesus, the chosen one (and Neo wears black cassocks, and so do I; the parallels abound). A lot of people don’t realize that Jesus knew Kung Fu. Despite all of the hoopla about the Rapture, we must go deeper into the rabbit hole, to understand our continued existence on May 22nd. We must choose the red pill, to understand more deeply, the presence of God in a complicated world.
The Gospel text from John today comes from what is called the Farewell Discourse. The words of farewell from Jesus come in the form of a prayer, a meditation on the unity of Jesus and God that he is sharing with his closest followers, and with us: “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?” There are two farewells by Jesus—before his death and before his ascension. Today we hear the first farewell as we anticipate the final farewell, which is really just the beginning for the Church, a community of resurrection led by the confused questioners today, Thomas and Philip. Today’s Gospel is about the art of saying goodbye; of letting go and holding on all at the same time. In his first goodbye to the disciples, Jesus promises the Holy Spirit. Jesus asks his followers, those who love him, to let go of him. In letting go of him physically, they will hold on to the Holy Spirit, the new experience of God that is coming in the future.
The art of the goodbye—the letting go and the holding on—is very much part of our experience right now. There are forms of farewell that are coming to us, in ways both small and large, just about every day now. The letting go and the holding on, the endings and the new beginnings, are mixed up together. Your ending is the new beginning. They are the same spiritual journey that connects the past to the future.
My Theology 2 class has been reading The Razor’s Edge, by W. Somerset Maugham. The novel is about the spiritual journey of Larry Darrell, through the events of the 20th century. The book begins with a quotation from the Hindu scripture the Upanishads.
“The sharp edge of a razor is difficult to pass over;
Thus the wise say the path to Salvation is hard.”
Larry Darrel is a character who leaves everything behind to find, literally, the meaning of life. He has to find out if there is a God; he sees this as the most important form of knowledge there is. And if there is a God, why is there so much evil in the world? In the words of Larry: “I want to make up my mind whether God is or God is not. I want to find out why evil exists. I want to know whether I have an immortal soul or whether when I die it’s the end.” In many ways, this is exactly where we begin our academic journey in Theology 2, with the Problem of Evil. These questions cause the love of his life, Isabel Bradley, to leave him. She thinks he is crazy, and maybe he is. But Larry has not been the same since returning from World War I. During the war, the experience of death, especially the death of his best friend Patsy, provoke a theological crisis in Larry: “The dead look so terribly dead when they’re dead,” Larry says. Larry is like the modern Buddha; or perhaps, he is Christ-like, showing us the spiritual journey of Jesus, in the years before he began his ministry. Like Larry, the first Buddha left behind a world of privilege after witnessing four passing visions: an old man, a sick man, a corpse, and a monk. Like Larry, after seeing the carnage of World War I, Siddartha seeks a new way, the path of enlightenment. Larry first goes to Europe, but the real breakthrough in his journey comes when he goes to study in India. Larry attempts to see beyond the gods of wealth, success, and beauty—the same ones we worship in our own day, to the ultimate nature of reality.
In Trilogy, H.D. wrote of the resurrection enlightenment of Jesus in this way.
In resurrection, there is confusion
if we start to argue; if we stand and stare,
we do not know where to go;
in resurrection, there is simple affirmation,
but do not delay to round up the others,
up and down the street your going
in a moment like this, is the best proof
that you know the way;
does the first wild-goose care
whether the others follow or not?
I don’t think so--he is is happy to be off—
he knows where he is going…
Larry is the wild goose of the modern age. He eventually finds the religious awareness he has been seeking, completely alone in a forest hut in India. Every moment of his life has lead up to the holy moment, the breakthrough experience of religious ecstasy.
“When I’d been at the Ashrama for two years I went up to my forest retreat…Next morning I awoke before dawn and I thought I’d go and see the sunrise…I sat down under a tree and waited. It was night still, but the stars were pale in the sky, and day was at hand. I had a strange feeling of suspense. So gradually aware that I was hardly aware of it light began to filter through the darkness, slowly, like a mysterious figure slinking between the trees. I felt my heart beating as though with the approach of danger. The sun rose…I was ravished by the beauty of the world. I’d never known such exaltation and transcendent joy. I had a strange sensation, a tingling that rose in my feet and travelled to my head, and I felt as though I were suddenly released from my body and as pure spirit partook of loveliness I had never conceived. I had a sense that a knowledge more than human possessed me, so that everything that had been confused was clear and everything that had perplexed me was explained. I was so happy that it was pain and I struggled to release myself from it, for I felt that if it lasted a moment longer I should die; and yet it was such rapture that I was ready to die rather than forego it. How can I tell you what I felt? No words can tell the ecstasy of my bliss. When I came to myself I was exhausted and trembling. I fell asleep.”
Though Larry once said farewell to everyone he knew, his spiritual enlightenment eventually brings him back to his friends, and to America. The spiritual search of Larry gives him riches that others simply don’t have. After the stock market crash in 1929, his friends are sorely in need of the wisdom that Larry has in abundance, and he gives back to everyone, both old friends and strangers. By going ahead in his search for God, he creates dwelling places for others. He even heals his ex-fiancé’s husband of his headaches with a meditation technique. He is able to love others—to love everyone, not out of need, but as a gift of God. He is free from the bondage of culture, money, and desire. By being the first bird to fly, Larry is able to bring others to a promised land, the reality where God grows in dawning awareness.
So where does all of this leave us this morning? What kind of dwelling places are being built for us in the future that is coming? How can we seek them in the here and now of our remaining days together this year? With the few weeks and days remaining in the year, the temptation before all of us is to just let the clock run out; to be safe in our familiar patterns and ruts, each individual cocoon of comfortable habits. This is more than a temptation; it is an inertia that is deep—the mindset that crosses off days rather than living them fully; the heart that avoids goodbyes for fear of the emotions behind them. I would simply ask you to be intentional in everything you do in the next two weeks—to let your ending be your best beginning. Even as you let go, I would ask you to hold on to what your teachers, and parents, and friends have taught you about the kind of person you want to be. Don’t just let the clock run out. If you can’t be diligent, a least be faithful. If you can no longer turn on your mind, then turn on your heart. I invite you, especially the seniors, to seize the passing moments in their fullness, and open yourself to the beauty that is all around you. You can take risks to know and be known at your best. You will be rewarded for your diligence, your academic second wind, and the faithfulness of your heart, almost instantly. In our daily rounds, both here and to the ends of the earth, we can seek, and find, the great giver beyond, and behind, every gift and blessing and loved one in our lives. In this search alone, the spiritual quest for the living God, is the truest rapture in real time, and the face of God shining in all living things.
“So instead of getting to heaven, at last –
I'm going, all along.”