Sunday, 4 May 2008

Sermon for May 4th '08

Sermon for May 4th 2008
The Revd. J. Michael Povey at All Angels by the Sea, Longboat Key, FL

Acts 1:6-14; Psalm 68:1-10, 32-35; 1 Peter 4:12-14 + 5:6-11; John 17:1-11


I grew up in the west of England, the very rainy west of England. I remember the clouds in winter. There could be cloud cover for weeks on end, and I would sometimes wonder if I’d ever see the sun again.

In my early twenties I worked for what was then the Westminster Bank. I was assigned to a branch in Chew Magna, an extremely pretty north Somerset village. Twice a week I would be sent in a taxi, with a black leather bag full of money, and an aged “guard” named Percy, to our sub-Offices in West Harptree and in Blagdon. These villages are in the Mendip Hills. The rain clouds would come scudding over the hills - wind-chased. They were a beauty to behold.

I miss those clouds! And I miss the Mendip Hills, as well as the Berkshire Hills of western Massachusetts.

None of us will ever forget those old “Wendy’s Hamburger” advertisements, in which a delightfully crusty older woman, supposedly in a rival restaurant, would look at her hamburger, and squawk “where’s the beef?”

As I read today’s portion from John I sighed “where’s the story?” For here John is strong in the abstract concept of “glory”, but weak in narrative.

We must turn to Acts, and other places, for the story. Luke, the author of Acts, is quite sparing in his language. He says “he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight”.

This is a reference to what the Church calls the “Ascension”. When Luke says that Jesus was “lifted up”, that may be taken as metaphorical rather than descriptive language. (We use similar language when we say that someone has “gone up in the world”)

But it is the cloud which is significant.

This is the cloud which the Israelites followed by day in the wilderness. It is the cloud which descended when Solomon’s Temple was dedicated. It is the cloud, which, in a vision, Ezekiel saw leave the Jerusalem Temple, and arrive with the exiles in Babylon. It is the cloud in which Jesus is bathed when he is with Peter, James and John on the mountain; and converses with Moses and Elijah.

The cloud, which we imagine as white, bright, glorious and luminescent is the visible sign of G-d’s very presence.

It is G-d who leads the Israelites in the wilderness; it is G-d who descends into the Jerusalem Temple; it is G-d who comes to be with the exiles in Babylon. It is G-d who speaks approvingly of Jesus on the Mount of Transfiguration; it is into
G-d’s very presence that Jesus enters in the Ascension.

And that is what John means by glory and glorification.

Jewish and Christian scholars use the same word to describe this glorious presence of G-d. It is the word “shekinah”. It is derived from a Hebrew word meaning “to be present with”. A fascinating fact about this word is that it is in the feminine gender.

The feminine presence of G-d with us. What a great thought!

The complicated language of John, when Jesus says that he glorified the Father on earth, and asks that the Father will glorify him in G-d’s own presence- is not the language of theological conundrum.

It is the language of tender affection, in which the Father is fully present in and to the Son, and the Son is fully present to the Father. It is the language of attention, tender attention.

For us to be glorified is to bask in the tender affection of the feminine presence of G-d.

Throughout my life I have experienced the clouds. Sometimes they are the clouds of the Mendip Hills, bringing beauty, and refreshing rains.

But often they are the gloomy clouds of depression, very much like the six weeks sun-blotting clouds of winter in South West England. Those of us who live with depression know the feeling all too well. It is as if a dark cloud decides to rest upon us. There is little to nothing we can do to make it go away. As it came without invitation, it will leave without farewell.

It is hard to know or feel the tender love of Shekinah presence when the cloud of depression obscures most joy, and beauty and love.

It is in those times that I value most a human presence. But I want a presence not words. This is not the time for advice or counsel. It is the time for a listening ear.

And I have come to believe that one of the greatest spiritual gifts by which we can glorify each other is the gift of silent attention. It is the gift of presence.

In this world of sound bites, and pundits, and self improvement Oprah style, I crave that the Church will be a tender feminine presence for each of us. Not a place where we are lectured. But a place where we are heard. That’s glory.

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