Rowan Williams and Trajectory

November 19th, 2017

The Rev. Doyt L. Conn, Jr. preaching

Last Sunday a most extraordinary blessing was bestowed upon this parish-we were visited by the 104th Archbishop of Canterbury, the Right Reverend and Right Honorable Lord Williams of Oystermouth. Now given our polity, the fact that the most senior cleric in the entire Anglican Communion stood in this pulpit and preached classifies that as a momentous occasion. That he is one of the greatest, most prolific, thinkers and writers in modern Christianity, adds great gravitas to this blessing.  But what makes Father Rowan’s visit to Epiphany, at least in my mind, a singular mountain top moment for our parish, is that he is a holy man. He seeks at all times and in all places to be in the presence of God. And I witnessed through him what it really means to be a holy person.

You know how Jesus, when he finished telling a parable, would often say: “Let those with ears hear, and those with eyes see,”?  I think by being around Father Rowan, I finally understand what that means. You see parables are stories pulled from the context of a moment.  Jesus would be walking along and see a widow, or a leper, or a Samaritan walking on the road, or a field full of lilies, and from that context make a connection about the presence of God in the lives of those listening. And I always thought that “ears to hear and eyes to see” was commentary on one’s capacity to understand the parable.  But after spending time with Father Rowan, I came to understand that the seeing and hearing has to do with being present to the moment.

Here is the insight: if we are present to the moment, we can see into the future.  But, if in the moment we are straining to see the future, we’ll miss the moment and get lost. Are you with me on that?  If we see and hear what is going on around us right now and if we know what we are seeing and hearing, we will be able to know what is going to happen in the future based on accurate assessment of the moment.   In other words, if we understand what something is, and where it has been, we will understand where it is going.

I’ll give you an example. Diane Carlisle asked Father Rowan if he would like to celebrate at the 11 AM Eucharist.  He replied, “Yes,” to which Diane suggested they meet between services for a quick walk through… a reasonable suggestion, I might add.  But Father Rowan said, “No need,” he would just watch me at the 8:45 AM service and do it that way.  So, he did.  He watched and absorbed the pattern of that service and then celebrated the 11 AM exactly the same way.  That can only happen if one is really paying attention in the moment.

His sermons reflected the same capacity to see and hear. The sermon he gave at 8:45 AM was entirely different from the one at 11 AM, and both, to my hearing (and knowledge of you), were perfectly tailored for your spiritual mood in the moment.  Only a person capable of hearing and seeing the present state of things can do that.

Jesus was like that incidentally, which is why Father Rowan seeks to be like Jesus in his life. Jesus had the capacity to understand what something was, and where it had been, in a way that could predict where it was going. Do you remember that story from the Gospel of John when Jesus is at the well and he met a Samaritan woman, the one who had five husbands? When she left Jesus, she said to her neighbors: “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done.” (John 4:29) That is what Father Rowan is like, and that is what we can be like as well.We can be people accustomed to seeing and hearing in the moment, and that will give us insight into the future.

You see, the presence of present Christians has the capacity to steer history, and that is what Paul is talking about in this First Letter to the Thessalonians we hear today.  Life has trajectory. It has direction, whether we want it to or not. Whether we admit it or not, life has an arch. If we are awake to the moment, if we are living in the light, to use Paul’s metaphor, we will be aware of that arch and in that way be capable of anticipating where things are going. And then (here is the exciting part) because of our knowledge of trajectory we have the capacity to accept this direction or reject it; we have the capacity to intervene, to steer history in a way that reflects God’s desire for creation.

But if we are asleep or drunk, if we are living in our dreams, or of sluggish mind, we will be surprised by the direction the future takes. We will be living under this false sense of peace and security and then wake up and ask: “How did this happen?”  “How did we get here?”  “When did this take place?”

I’ll give you a real-world example that taught me about the necessity of presence and the reality of trajectory. I have a new puppy; Minnie, the Newphypoo (Newfoundland and Poodle highbred/ or mutt).  She has trajectory, and my life might have been easier had I acknowledged this reality. But I was surprised.  Life was peaceful and secure, until it was not.

You see I know what Minnie is.  She is a puppy, and does puppy things. I know where she came from.  Her father is a 135-pound Newfoundland. And with this knowledge I was perfectly positioned to predict her future behavior, had I been listening or seeing. Puppies grow. Newfoundland puppies grow big.  So, a growing Minnie is going to get bigger and bigger, and that means greater and greater range of access, and that greater range of access means less and less things in my world are safe…like my to-do list, which I left on my desk.

One day, when I was out Minnie decided to read it with her teeth.  That was a predictable trajectory had I been seeing and hearing in the present moment. Had I not been so tied up with my to do list; I would not have lost my to-do list to Minnie. Ironic. Incidentally, it is not easy to put back together a soggy, dog shredded to-do list.

When we pay attention to the moment we have the capacity to anticipate the future. When we see and hear right now we better understand what something is, and where it had been, so we can anticipate the arch of its future action, and with that insight, act or not act depending. But either way, we should never be surprised. Christians should never be surprised; if we are awake to the moment, Christians should never be surprised.

Today is In-gathering Sunday, and our common gifts say something collectively about what we believe to be the trajectory, the arch, of this church. The decision to see this arch and support it is an individual one. And the decision to act generously, often depends on whether we are present to the moment, or just checking our pledge off our to do list, so as to not have to worry about it in the future. But know this, a pledge isn’t about our pocketbook now or even in the future. It is about our gratitude to God for the reality of God in this very moment, and each moment hereafter.

What we at Epiphany have to offer the world are people who can see and hear in the present moment, and more than that, people who are willing to see and hear in the present moment. But to be people who see and hear, requires training. We can’t try our way into clarity of being. We can only train our way into clarity of being.  Father Rowan is a person of training.  He is a Christian giant, a holy man, not by accident, but by a very intentional life.  And the very intentional life he lives is an intentional life we could live as well.

Here is the interesting thing about being present to the moment; it requires only one thing, really, seeking in the moment to see and hear God. That is what I witnessed with Father Rowan; a seeking in the moment to see and hear God. Only God.  Just God. Searching for God.  The trick to being truly present is to let all of the stimuli of the world get whittled down to one desire, one focus; seeking the presence of God.

And the paradox is that when this becomes the goal and then the habit, everything else becomes much clearer.  When we seek first the Kingdom of God, as the old hymn says, all else will be given to us.  And that I what I witnessed in Father Rowan, a man of pure clarity.  And that is possible for you and me as well. We can be people of clarity because we know life has trajectory; it has direction; there is an arch; and it all leads to God, whether we live like it does or not. But when we do live into that reality, we become people of clarity. And that clarity enables us to act or not to act in the moment in a way that steers the world into God’s hope for our common life and all of creation.

We know what that looks like to be a person of clarity, because we have met the 104th Archbishop of Canterbury, Father Rowan. We have seen and heard him, as he has seen and heard us, in the moment.  We have been blessed by his Christian life-style.  And so, I wonder: “Will we, you and me, accept that life-style as our own?”