DescriptionWarden of the Cathedral College CalendarDate=October 29, 2004
Sermon given at the Evensong service at the 147th Annual convention of the Epicopal Diocese of Minnesota.
It’s hard to leave home. The grief finally hit. I was leaving.
I was ripped apart with sobs and could not stop weeping. And so I did what I have done in these times ever since I was a child; I went to the woods. As I walked down the paths on our 10 acres along the French River, in the midnight dark, I realized that sounds were coming out of me that I did not recognize. Then, there was a shock of recognition. It was raw grief making its way from my insides to the outside. Despite the certainty in my mind and heart that this call to Washington was real and from the Holy One, leaving St. Paul’s, leaving Duluth, leaving THE LAKE, leaving the woods, the deer, bear, grouse and other-than-human creatures who were my friends and comfort was full of painful, gut-wrenching grief.
As I walked in the dark, tree-lined paths, I sensed the balsam and black spruce reaching out their boughs as if to hug me. Again, almost involuntarily the words came from me “You are so beautiful; you are so beautiful.” These trees, which had often scratched me as I ran my chain saw to cut up the downed timber, were gentle now, loving, caressing and comforting me. The tears and wailing continued, but a Lakota chant came out as well. I sang the deer song, which often comforts and attracts the deer I love and feed all winter. I also asked the Holy One to let my Dad, now dead seven years, accompany me on this last walk down these paths, along this blessed (and because of rain) raging river. The journey around the property of which we have been stewards these past years took an hour. My eyes had adjusted to the dark, and soon I could see how the trees and shrubs and bushes glow in the dark. The tears still fell, but the wracking sobs subsided and I touched the earth, leaned on the huge white pine under whom I had sat so many times, and touched each of the ancient cedars in the two small cedar groves near the river.
When I returned to the house, Linda was waiting, agitated. She told me that while packing boxes she had heard a series of loud, unfamiliar sounds. The windows were all closed. And yet the sound reverberated throughout the house. She turned on the yard light, and there, in the open yard by the garden was the largest buck she had ever seen. He was “snorting,” blasting air through his nostrils to call her outside. She was almost afraid of him, yet was drawn to him and left the house, shining her small flashlight on his face. He did not run. He stood his ground. Linda greeted him and returned to the house, and then I returned. It all made sense. The deer had come to comfort. My Dad would have loved no form more to manifest his presence than a large buck. The buck stood exactly where I had placed two chairs, seven years earlier, after getting the 1 am call that my Dad had died, and had a conversation with him as he left this earthly manifestation of life. It all fit. The luminous, lovely, lively web of life and being was intact. I was leaving the people and the place I loved so much, but The Holy One was letting me know in a way I could not overlook, that this magical and enchanted world in which we live is not limited by death, by geography or time.
God loves us so much that all we need do is ask, and if we will but watch and listen, our fondest prayers will be answered, not simply by giving us what we think we need, because we are so often wrong about that, but by showing us in ways often subtle, but often unmistakable, that “I am with you always, even to the end of the ages.” That is what that night felt like, a profound time of knowing the power of God’s love.
Whose arms were those boughs? Who was the buck? Oh, I have my own ideas about all of that which are only thinly veiled. We Anglicans can always say “It’s a mystery.” But it matters not at all. God simply is. God’s love is a fire that cannot be quenched. And God truly is the Hound of Heaven who pursues us and lets us know it ways unique to each of us, that we are not alone.
It’s in our DNA. This diocese has simply never been any good at keeping people out. I’ve been involved in family systems work for well over decade now, and as I leave this place I have called home for so long, this diocese which has nurtured, encouraged and supported me, I want to share how I see the inevitability of destiny as a community. Right from the beginning, under Bishop Whipple’s leadership, we have been better at including than excluding. At the very time the St. Paul newspaper was daring to write headlines which said “The Only Good Indian is a Dead Indian” in response to the Dakota Rebellion, Whipple was holding council with both Dakota and Ojibwe church leaders about the mission work to be done. Years ago, even before I became an Episcopalian, I was at a Minnesota intertribal meeting, and I asked a tribal leader “why are all you tribal leaders Episcopalians.” He answered, “Well, for one thing, when other white people were hanging us, Bishop Whipple was ordaining us to the priesthood.”
I think even more than Whipple, it is Enmegahbowh who is our diocesan “patron saint,” the founder of our family system as Episcopalians in Minnesota. Think about it. He was first trained and nurtured by the Midewiwin, the Grand Medicine Society of the Ojibwe, in the traditional ways of worshipping Gitchi Manido, the Great Spirit. But he was also, sometimes in parallel time, exposed to the message of the Gospel. Like all good Episcopalians (he left Methodism to join us) this was a both/and thing. He drew deeply from the well of the Ojibwe tradition, and allowed the gospel acculturate, to root in so that he could draw on the strength of both traditions.
He swam upstream as well. He risked everything, (even lost several children to starvation and cold) to share the gospel, to try and bring peace between Dakota and Ojibwe, between white and Indian. Bishop Whipple was smart enough to defer to Enmegahbowh as they together created the Diocese of Minnesota. I wear this eagle stole (created by Annie Henninger of St. Paul’s, Duluth) in honor of “He who stands before his people.”
Don’t get me wrong, history is not destiny, but it is very hard to break these family system patterns. This diocese had no luck excluding Indian people. And when women were first ordained, we had more female rectors, earlier than any other diocese. We came only a few votes from electing the first woman Bishop in the Anglican Communion! (Margo Maris still feels grateful that she didn’t have to be the first.) We have been served well and often by women and gay and lesbian clergy, even in times when many of those dioceses surrounding us would not. We are just no darn good at excluding. So, dear ones, do we have the courage to stand in the footsteps of Whipple, old “Straight Tongue”; and Enmegahbowh, “the one who stands before his people?”
I think we can take great comfort as we move into the “thinnest” of times of the calendar year, toward All Saints. The ancient Celts and most all cultures describe this time of the year—the waning of the light and the coming of the cold in these northern climes—as the time when the veil between the living and the dead is thinnest. I feel it. Don’t you? I have buried our beloved senior warden, and eight people, many of them well over 90, in these last two weeks of my time as Rector of St. Paul’s, Duluth. It’s almost as if those bonds which held them here were loosened with the knowledge from the Book of Wisdom “but they are at peace…and their souls are in the hands [and I think the very heart of] God, and no torment will ever touch them.”
In these days of terror, oppression, war, and polarization, it would be easy to fall into the trap that the 16th-century mystic and saint, Teresa of Avila observed. Looking around her she asked “How did all those priests ever get so serious and preach all that gloom? I don’t think God tickled them yet. Beloved—hurry!” The very foundations of Anglicanism seem to be shaken because we Episcopalians did what we know how to do—include, not exclude. And from across the globe comes the thundering from Archbishops and Bishops who see only ruin for us for including Gene Robinson in the House of Bishops, and for extending the blessing of the Church to those who would love one another.
How parallel this is to the approbation of the general public in Minnesota as Bishop Whipple pleaded for the lives of the Dakota freedom fighters. How similar are these loud protests to the time when women were ordained and Barbara Harris (Oh my, oh my—she is divorced, Black, mouthy, AND she smokes!) became a Bishop. It would be easy to hang our heads, and be very afraid. And many, both political leaders and church leaders would have us do that. But not in this diocese.
In her latest novel, the Ojibwe writer Louise Erdrich’s heroine, Four Souls, is exhausted, afraid: “Exhaustion and longing filled her. She sang her mother’s song, low, then louder, until her heart strengthened, and when she could feel her dead around her, gathering she straightened her back”— and kept on going!
We are not alone in the dark. We need not fear. At this time of the year, All Saints, we need to remember who we are and Whose we are. At St. Paul’s Duluth, our children celebrate the day of the dead in our Columbarium with dancing, laughter, food and fun, with decorations on the niches and pictures of all those human and other than human (pets are big) persons whom we have loved and lost. It fairly screams, “Death where is thy sting?” And there is more. Enmegahbowh has been showing up.
It was four years ago on a Good Friday. A new member, who had once attended St. Paul’s, but who had been away, a few years returned; and asked all three priests—Lucie, Aron, and me—to join her at the high altar for a blessing. As we did the blessing, her eyes became wet with tears as she looked down the center isle. I saw it too—something shimmering, movement, a line of moving shadow and light. We finished the blessing, and retired to Lucie’s office. When the member entered the room the first thing she saw was the icon of Enmegahbowh. Visibly shaken she shouted “That’s him, that’s the one that was leading the people up the isle for healing when we did the blessing.” She had never seen the icon before, and knew nothing of Enmegahbowh.
Johnson Loud’s powerful icon of Enmegahbowh has him holding the fire of the Spirit in his hand. That is our heritage. We hold the fire. There is a story about one of the desert fathers, Abba Joseph, who was approached by a young monk who asked, “Abba Joseph, I keep my little fast, and I pray my little prayers on the hours, and I keep my little disciplines. What must I do to be more faithful? Abba Joseph held up his hand, and flames leapt from the tips of his fingers. He look at the young monk and said, “why not become totally consumed by holy fire.” Enmegahbowh dared.
Remember what we are doing. Holding the doors between the worlds open when we priests stand at the altar. The living and the dead pass through each Sunday, blessing us, challenging us to become totally consumed by holy fire. Okay, I admit it, I have become, a liturgical literalist on this point. My experience in ten years at St. Paul’s is that it is literally true that the saints and all the company of heaven show up at the communion rail. They jostle me, and widows weep at the rail and tell me that their much loved husbands are there with them. And then there are the children.
I was baptizing three little girls. Their family had come to St. Paul’s, homeless. And things got worse while they lived in church-owned housing. The father in the family murdered his mother in law in a horribly violent way. So these children now were in the hands of an overtaxed single mom. I baptized the four-year-old, then the baby, and lastly, the 22-month-old. As I made the sign of the cross on her forehead with the chrism, she reached out beyond me and began to wave and say “Hi, Hi there, Hi!” to the “saints” that had gathered above and around her. The whole congregation gasped, as I had been preaching that very All Saints Sunday about the reality of the Communion of Saints.
I have no doubt that the saints are with us in our struggles to be faithful. In a time when the public voice of Christianity seems to be all hell fire, brimstone and judgment, we, as Bishop Barbara Harris said “are a resurrection Easter people in a Good Friday world.” Desmond Tutu has spoken of the difficulty of being Anglican. “Love is more demanding than law,” he reminds us. Bill Moyers recently wrote a stunning article talking about religion that heals and religion that divides. He, too, says it is a harder sell to the public to speak of a religion that heals the wounds of the world and leaves the judging to God, than to fall into the “thou shalt not” religion that seems to predominate in America these days, and as the loud voices from around the Anglican Communion, testify in parts of our own tradition as well.
But, Dear Ones, it is almost as if we have no choice. It is in our DNA to break new ground and be radically inclusive, hopelessly hospitable—the fire in Enmegahbowh’s hands, the breath of the ancestors, the courage of the saints calls us to follow them. And they are legion—Whipple, Breck, Good Thunder, Kah O Sed, Wabasha, Hinman, Mazakute, Smith, Hanks, Loud, Smith (oh lots of Smiths and Smyithes).
Do we have the courage to follow them? Do we dare to follow Jesus and his persistent and terrifying call to risk everything to bind up the divisions in our broken world? The command to love is not, as Carter Heyward a professor at Episcopal Divinity School has written, easy to follow. “Love is not, at heart, a sentiment, attachment or being drawn toward. She writes: “Love is active, effective…to make love, is to make justice. And making justice is not a warm and fuzzy experience…. The kind of love to which Jesus calls us involves commitment. We are not automatic lovers of self, others, the world or God…Love does not just happen. Love is a choice—not necessarily a rational choice…. Love is a conversion to humanity—a willingness to be participate with others in the healing of a broken world and broken lives. Love is the choice to experience life as a member of the human family, a partner in the dance of life, rather than as an alien in the world worshipping a deity above the world aloof and apart from human flesh.”
Do we love the broken world enough to found new churches, so all may know a loving God, not a judging one; to sacrifice financially to extend our unique, both Catholic and Protestant faith to immigrants, the poor, Native people, the campuses, in ways they will understand? Remember, we are the last “catholics” left! There is nowhere else in the Catholic tradition where anyone of us present could be, if we had the gifts and were willing to serve, a deacon, priest, bishop, even Archbishop if God called us, through community to fulfill those roles.
Enmegahbowh’s love for his fellow Episcopalians cost him the lives of his children and the acceptance by tribal people, for he rescued may white people and sought to keep the Ojibwe out of the Dakota rebellion. That is what it means to be faithful to our tradition, Minnesota style. Here is what it could look like to follow in Enmegahbowh’s steps.
There are law suits brought by the Natitve people in Canada against the Canadian government and the many churches who abused, and st