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You should know I had an entirely different sermon written for today, but yesterday I really struggled to know what to say right now. The original words I had crafted so carefully, with quotes by Meister Eckhart that weaved with the encounter between Abraham and the strangers at the Oakes of Mamre, all felt true. But the sermon also felt distant, removed from what I am truly feeling right now. That sermon stayed too much in my head, and I realized after a nap yesterday that the Spirit was nudging–shoving–me more into my heart at this point. So, I’m taking a risk with this sermon, but oh well. This is what I have to say from my heart.
A couple weeks ago, I had a powerful dream as I slept one night. Since my grandmother died over a decade ago, she comes to me from time to time in my dreams. In moments of pain or struggle, confusion or doubt, she will suddenly come visit me while I sleep. As we neared the three-month date in this time of physical distancing and social upheaval, everything felt very heavy and into that heaviness she came.
In my dream, my family were gathered back at my grandparents’ house in my hometown. Some sort of holiday or celebration had brought us all together. As I looked around my grandparents’ living room, I saw my grandmother sitting in her old tan recliner, wearing red. Our eyes locked, and I realized that they weren’t seeing her. How could they not know she was sitting right in the middle of them?
I looked toward the kitchen, and my Aunt Marilyn was standing there looking at me. “Do you see Meme sitting there?” I asked her. “Yes,” she said, smiling. But no one else seemed to see her, as I slowly walked through the group to kneel next to her chair.
We looked into each other’s faces and smiled. There was a feeling of deep, deep peace that washed over me as I leaned toward her and we held one another for the longest time.
When I leaned back from the hug, I looked at her as she smiled, and I said, “I know it took a lot for you to come back here to visit me like this.”
She paused with the kindest look on her face and said, “It did take a lot, but it was worth it. It was worth it to see you smile and laugh. You need to laugh, Stuart.”
Time stopped at that moment and we just sat with one another for who knows how long as everyone else did what they did in the living room. I looked at her and asked her what she had to tell me right now. Her face focused and her eyes locked on mine as she leaned forward, placed her hand on my chest, and said, “I want you to know that I am always with you. And my purpose is always to help you guard your heart. Guard your heart, Stuart.”
And then I woke up and the visitation was over. The message had been given.
Of course I told Lisa about it when she woke up, saying that it was so easy to get off track in these days of confusion and sadness, grief and anger, and fatigue. Yes, fatigue at trying to hold all this. As if we can hold this on our own. As if I could. As if we were meant to hold this. As if this were a problem to be solved rather than a love to be embodied and a life to be experienced. The image of my grandmother’s face. I can feel her hand on my chest.
A few days later, I was cleaning out the guest room, reorganizing my space for prayer and meditation. There on the table, I saw a bag with a small, blue, glass bead that someone had brought back as a gift from their visit to the Taize’ Community in France. As I held the bead in my hands, I remembered the visit I had with Brother Roger on that Tuesday afternoon in April, 2005 there in the monastery church.
I knelt next to him that day, a frail man of ninety who almost seemed to pulse with energy. I was struggling with my own sense of vocation, of what God wanted me to do–who God wanted me to be. I had been talking with friends for a while about becoming an Episcopal priest, but there were so many unknowns. So much uncertainty. I made a simple set of prayer beads to take with me to Taize’, and I held them in my hand as I held his hands there in the monastery church, seeking some sense of clarity.
There, next to Brother Roger, I remember when we locked eyes and he reached out and pulled me toward him, going so far as to pull my face against his chest. I could feel the fabric from his white robes as he held me there and said, “Je t’aime.” I love you. Then he offered a prayer in French, asking God’s blessing for me. In that moment of visitation, that encounter, my heart knew what the next step was supposed to be.
These memories came swirling back to me as I held this little package with this blue bead in it. As I looked closely at the small card included with the bead, I realized it had a short Bible verse in French, English, Spanish, German, and Italian on it. As I read the verse in English, something like electricity shot through me. It was from Proverbs 4:23: “More than all else, keep watch over your heart, since here are the wellsprings of life.” I took that bead and hooked it to my prayer beads, to keep it close.
I can feel them, still: my grandmother’s hand on my chest, the fabric from Brother Roger’s monastic robe against my face. “My purpose is always to help you guard your heart, Stuart.” “Je t’aime. I love you.” “More than all else, keep watch over your heart.” These encounters, these moments, will forever support me in stressful and frightening days, my friends. I will be forever grateful for them, and others, that have rejuvenated me and helped me realize that the most important thing is not to figure out how I can hold all this–how we can hold all this–but to realize again that we are being held together. I can’t stress that enough.
Friends, I need to confess to you today that I have been caught up for these past few weeks in how we are “going to figure this out.” I know many of us have felt this way. I have stressed over this sense of needing to solve the problem of online services, which ones some may like more than others; of uncertainties with the budget; of unknowns for the Fall if the virus rebounds again; of now looking toward the framework for small groups that will come out from the bishop’s office on Wednesday that will be limiting and very structured; of how long this small group phase will be; of what our preschool will look like this Fall; of when a vaccine will be available so we can all be together; of frustrations with some that they can go to eat out or go to the Club for lunch and they cannot come to church. I must confess to you my fear–and fixation–that some may not stay in the parish. That I will fail. That faithfulness as a community has to do with succeeding. The pressure on somehow needing to figure out the perfect balance has been enormous, and I have failed to guard my heart.
And of course on top of that there is the pain and anger that has risen with lingering social pressures from racial injustice in this country. I believe we are entering more fully into a Great Awakening of Oneness, a realization of how our fixation on power and social constructions have harmed so many whose skin is darker than mine. This must be said.
And I have struggled with how we can hold the tension around not wanting to gather in large groups to share in the vigils and conversations because of the anger that will be stirred in some who will wonder why they can’t come to church. And some feeling that, if we don’t attend public events we have failed to live up to the Gospel’s call. To say nothing of the genuine concern I have for gathering in large groups in the middle of a pandemic. How do we hold this? How do we manage expectations?
When it comes to reflecting on race, some send notes wondering why we are focusing on this at all, offering alternative perspectives. Some feel we do and say too much while others feel we do and say too little. Some are angry because they feel we haven’t shown up enough. Of course we are projecting our own anxieties and frustrations–and I do my own share of projection on those in leadership positions. But it hurts. How to hold all this? The pressure on somehow needing to figure out the perfect balance has been enormous.
And how to navigate sermons and church life in general right now, in this climate where there is so much anger and frustration with politics and the election, on top of the ongoing pandemic and frustrations with racial injustice. Trying to write the perfect sermon that somehow avoids every political pitfall and loaded phrase while also being true to the Gospel as I see it in my heart is not easy, to say the least.
Just the election would be plenty to deal with! It honestly feels like hate has infected everything. Merely saying Donald Trump or Joe Biden or Nancy Pelosi’s names makes some folks’ blood pressure rise. I’m tired of it. Not that I am tired of healthy and robust debates over policy, but I’m tired of the senseless tribalism that has infected our society. I am tired of the manipulation and arrogance and narcissism. We can do better than this childishness that we have now. The pressure to hold all of this is enormous.
Into all this, I hear my grandmother’s voice from my dream: “Guard your heart.” And I remember that time with Brother Roger, being reminded of God’s love. “Je t’aime.” And discovering the prayer card saying “More than all else, keep watch over your heart, since here are the wellsprings of life.”
I come to a deeper awareness that I am not going to solve these problems on my own. And, we are not going to solve these problems on our own, because these are problems of sin, and that is the space of the Spirit of Christ who reminds us that instead of feeling like we have to hold all this on our own, we are called to a greater awareness that we are being held in God’s loving embrace.
So, looking today at this remarkable text with Abraham and Sarah encountering the three strangers who show up with a message that reaffirms God’s loving presence for their lives, I am convicted in my own life. I am convicted because I have been much more caught up in meeting your expectations than I have with guarding my heart and remaining grounded in this awareness of God’s abiding presence that is holding us all.
And I don’t say that to cause harm or insult! Far from it, my friends, because the truth is that when I am not grounded in this awareness of God’s presence, when I am not guarding my heart, then I truly am failing to be the priest you need right now. The person who shows up, ungrounded in prayer and convinced that he needs to figure this all out, driven by his anxieties and fears and preoccupation with balancing competing interests? You don’t want him and don’t need him. I can promise you that. And the truth for me is really the truth for us all, isn’t it?
In the depths of my heart, I believe we need to listen right now for the Spirit’s presence in the midst of the frustration we feel right now. And, just like with Abraham and Sarah, tensions will rise within us when the Spirit gives us a message. We can either bow like Abraham, with gratitude that God has kept God’s promises in the restructuring of our entire lives, or we can scoff like Sarah initially did. We can be receptive or resistant to the reorientation the Spirit brings us in these moments of encounter.
Friends, let us be prayerful people who realize that we must guard our hearts as we realize more and more that we are all held in the heart of God. Let us guard our hearts, so that when the Spirit shows up in the heat of our own day, our hearts will be open to receive the message God is bringing us.
That is my prayer for myself, and it is my prayer for you.
The Rev. Dr. Stuart Higginbotham
The Third Sunday after Pentecost
June 14, 2020