This is the last word from this pulpit for this difficult year, which ends tomorrow. It’s a big responsibility- having the last word at the end of this particular year.
Maybe you should have the last word? I got thinking about the idea of ‘the last word.’ For example, King Henry VIII had the last word in his discussion with the Pope.
You remember that piece of 16th century history. Henry wanted to divorce Catherine of Aragon, so he could marry Anne Boleyn. Rome wouldn’t allow it. So he broke with the church by the Act of Supremacy in 1534 and named himself head of the church of England. So he had the last word- he was free to marry Anne Boleyn. Too bad for her!
Now, why is this relevant to this service, today? What’s the relevance of King Henry VIII? We all know the seasonal song, The Twelve Days of Christmas, right? It’s just a fun song. Or is it?
We sang the old carol, We Three Kings. Henry VIII was not one of them, that’s for sure. The song is about three wise men–how they took that twelve day journey and arrived at the stable with their gifts on the Feast of the Epiphany- the celebration of wisdom, understanding or insight.
The song, The Twelve Days of Christmas, comes from the journey of the three kings, or wise men, or magi. “On the first day of Christmas my true love gave to me, a partridge in a pear tree.” It sounds like a rather silly song, a fun song. Take another look.
Church historians tell us that this funny little song about a partridge in a pear tree that ‘my true love gave to me,’ was really an underground catechism during the time in England when it was forbidden, under penalty of death, to practice the Roman version of the Catholic religion.
In this way the song is similar to songs sung by slaves traveling the underground railroad.
Do you know about this? The entire song has coded messages and reminders. In the song, ‘My true love’ is God In theology, God is often a synonym for Truth.
Who is singing? The ‘me’ person who is singing the song is a baptized Catholic; the partridge in a pear tree is Christ.
Christ is symbolically presented as the mother partridge who feigns injury to decoy predators from her vulnerable nestlings. There’s a Biblical passage that says: “Jerusalem! Jerusalem! How often would I have sheltered you under my wings, as a hen does her chicks, but thou wouldst not have it so.”
The two turtle doves represent the Old and New Testaments.
The three French hens are the three Christian virtues: faith, hope and charity, or love.
The four calling birds are the four gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.
The five gold rings represent the Pentateuch, the five books of Moses…the Torah: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy.
Can you guess what ‘six geese a laying’ represents? It’s the six days of creation. On the seventh day He rested.
Seven swans a swimming is the seven sacraments of the Church: baptism, holy communion, confirmation, confession, marriage, holy orders, extreme unction.
Eight maids a-milking represent the eight beatitudes: blessed are the poor…blessed are the peace makers, and so forth. They talk about the rewards in the hereafter.
Nine ladies dancing are the nine fruits of the holy spirit, from which evolved the Novena, the nine days of prayer to the Holy Spirit, the third person of the Trinity.
Ten Lords a leaping is the Ten Commandments.
Eleven pipers piping represent the eleven faithful apostles; there were twelve, but Judas was unfaithful.
The twelve drummers drumming represent the twelve points of the Apostles Creed. Tradition said that each of the twelve apostles contributed one clause to the creed.
I love to get new insights into old stories. That, it seems, is the task of life: to discover something new, and see the old as if it was the first time.
Think about the wise men: what makes one wise? Turn the question around: what prevents wisdom? Prejudice prevents wisdom. Narrow thinking prevents wisdom. Clinging to old answers prevents wisdom.
The story says that the three who traveled together, following a star, finally reached their hoped-for destination and they discovered the Divine…they fell down on their knees and worshiped that Divine Spirit, bringing out their gifts: gold, frankincense and myrrh.
Think about it again: they left their old kingdoms- each came from a different place; and they traveled together. We can imagine that journey. They spoke different languages. To communicate- which we can imagine they did- how else can you travel together, making all those decisions? So they learned one another’s language, and they shared stories about their families, the homes they left behind, the people who were waiting for them to return. They shared stories about their lives, their hopes and fears, their grief and disappointments.
They became a community of sorts. When they reached that fabled stable they had already discovered what they had set out to find! They became the wise men, not because they found the final answer, but they learned the first and most important lesson in life: you have to leave the known, the familiar, and take a risk, in search of a dream, a hope. That’s what their shared journey taught them, after they took the initial risk.
They might have traveled in fear, with their body guards keeping them from harm, preventing communication, clinging to their only language, which is a metaphor for their prejudices and old ways of thinking.
They followed the star and found the Divine: the babe in a manger. By then it could have been any baby, which is a symbol of a potential life. While the baby is a full human being, the baby is not a realized person- it is a symbol of the potential each of us has to develop our gifts, and to give the best we have…to become our best self.
And it’s never too late to attain that kind of wisdom. Each of us must find it for ourselves, but we cannot find it by ourselves. Those three fabled figures traveled together, and that’s the road to wisdom…listening to others, learning about their lives–what makes them tick–what makes them laugh, and what makes them cry…what are their hopes and dreams…what books, movies or poems have touched them.
That’s what has come through for me in the New York Times wonderful gift they call the Portraits of Grief. “Here are glimpses of some of the victims of the September 11 attack on the World Trade Center.”
They are not simply telling us about each of the victims- they are reminding us that each of us is a simple, separate and sacred person. They are locating the Divine for us, in each and every one of those people. They tell us what each of them liked to do:
“Victor Wald,” the story says, “had a knack for languages.” “Long bedridden with rheumatic fever as a child, Mr. Wald came to love reading and books. His Upper West Side apartment was stuffed with them, especially histories and Judaica. He had an uncanny mastery of foreign languages, opera librettos, sports statistics.”
The Portraits of Grief remind us that we are on this journey we call life. Each of us is a separate person, but we are together. Robert DiPalma, a Times editor working on this project, said that the task has touched him in a deep way. He said that each of the victims is unique in their own way. Is that a redundancy? At first I thought so, but then I realized it isn’t a redundancy. Yes, we are different from one another- each in our own way. But we are connected, in our own way.
The Feast of the Epiphany is beautifully celebrated in James Joyce’s wonderful short story The Dead, from Dubliners. That film was John Huston’s last one- his last word, so to speak. The last paragraph says:
A few light taps upon the pane made him turn to the window. It had begun to snow again. He watched sleepily the flakes, silver and dark, falling obliquely against the lamplight. The time had come for him to set out on his journey westward. Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, falling softly upon the Bog of Allen and, farther westward, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.
Then there’s the wonderful last words in Dylan Thomas’s Child’s Christmas: “I turned the gas down, got into bed. I said some words to the close and holy darkness, and then I slept.”
I decided that the last words in the collection of poems would be from my friend Ruth Codier, who helped me take a step toward wisdom when I worked through my initial fear of her. Ruth took on an important symbolism for me: all parishioners are scary, at first! The task is to get past that initial anxiety. When I left Lexington, after completing seminary, Ruth wrote a poem to me:
Some couldn’t stand me. You stood me. It may be, because you stood me, I’m more standable.
That was an important poem for me- to me, and about me. It’s good to be reminded.
We were all reminded of what’s most important in life as we heard about all those telephone calls from the World Trade Center – after the towers had been hit. “I love you.” That’s the last word – the bottom line. Isn’t it.
The calls from the plane that those heroes took down in Pennsylvania: “Take care of the kids. I love you,” he said to his wife. Then she heard him say to the others who helped overtake the terrorists, “Okay, let’s roll.”
My last words before the non-sabbatical are simply to say something about my plans- what I hope to accomplish in the next three months.
(In the printed version of this sermon, which will be on our web site, will include some comments about my previous sabbaticals- one of them here, ten years ago, and the other which I took during my twelve year tenure in Attleboro.)
I had planned to take a three-month sabbatical beginning tomorrow. After September 11 I decided it wasn’t the right time to dis-connect from the congregation, which is the first ‘point’ of a sabbatical.
I do have a flexible plan for the next three months. I will not disconnect, but neither will I be keeping the kind of schedule that I’ve been accustomed to- so I’m thinking of it as a modified non-sabbatical time.
I’ll be keeping in touch with the staff on a regular basis; Barbara, Ed and Jan will filter things to me. For the most part, I will be at home working on one or more of the projects I have in mind.
For example, I plan to take the next step in my Natural Selections poetry project, to tell you why the poems that I included in that collection have not only survived, but feed that part of me which I think of as spiritual-why they are a big part of my soul food.
I’m planning to provide you with some updates on the project through my regular letters in Soundings, and in the pulpit at the end of January and the middle of February.
I will be back on my old schedule at the end of March, on Easter Sunday.
After I had been in Attleboro for seven years, and the time for a sabbatical was coming up, I made a suggestion to the congregation. It wasn’t feasible for me to be away for six months. For one thing, I had two children at home- it wasn’t right for family reasons. Also, we were in the process of absorbing the remnants of the North Attleboro congregation which had sold its building and voted to merge with us. This was a big task for me- to get to know the fifty or so active folks from that congregation, and to help them become a part of the new, merged congregation.
(It’s a rare task for clergy to do mergers and acquisitions!)
So I proposed that the congregation provide some money for me to travel, either by myself or with my family, during the summer break. We agreed on $2,000 a year for three years.
In the summer of 1979 I took the first trip with my family. I had a very close friend who had been living in Egypt, outside of Cairo, for two years. He and his wife were teaching in the American school there, and he invited us to come and stay with them for a month. He got the travel person at the school to arrange for four round trip tickets to Cairo at a total cost of $1,000. So we spent a month in Egypt, keeping within the $2,000 budget.
The next year I traveled to Europe for a month. I contacted a distant uncle in Scotland’s Orkney Islands which is where my mother’s family had roots. I went with a friend, and we spent a week or so in the Orkney’s, digging into roots, and we stayed at Bed and Breakfast places and with friends in other parts of Scotland and in England. A wonderful trip.
The next year I spent almost a month in the Soviet Union, where my brother, who had studied at the University of Moscow in the 60’s, had lots of contacts. I traveled with a group who met with Soviets in what we called ’round table peace talks.’ A fascinating, if somewhat disturbing experience.
Those travel experiences provided a lot for me both personally and professionally- much of which accrued to my work with the congregation and community.
Those trips were so important to my ministry that the congregation urged me to continue, which I did. A trip to Italy the next summer was not disturbing at all, except to my waistline! Then I took another disturbing trip- this time to Central America, in 1983, during our countries rather misguided involvement in Nicaragua, Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador. Another important and disturbing trip. (Some things are important because they are disturbing!)
The next year I arrived here, and after seven years I planned and arranged the mother of all sabbaticals: I bought a Volkswagen camper in which I would live by myself for five months while exploring my own country. Finally I understood what Thoreau had been doing out at Walden Pond. It turned out to be the most important trip of all, from an internal, spiritual point of view.
Now, remember the last words in Dickens wonderful story about Scrooge’s inner spiritual journey–his epiphany. Dickens puts the words in the mouth of Tiny Tim, who represents innocence: “God bless us everyone.”