Monday, August 18, 2014

Lean In And Listen*



I saw them out of the corner of my eye on my desk—some flowers in a small ceramic vase. I thought: “How nice. Sukie must have made a bouquet for my birthday.”

And then I went on in my head with whatever pressing issues preoccupied me at the time, passing i
nto forgetfulness.

I didn’t notice them again until three days later. They were still there. They hadn’t moved. I just happened to see them—different kinds of flowers.

One I recognized as a nasturtium--deep, rich yellow petals with orange and blood red accents radiating outward from the stamen.

And then others alongside— more yellow flowers, flowers with shades of purple and blue and tiny pointed buds. Getting closer, I noticed one of them smelled minty. And there was another, with a delicate soft white flower...

I finally thanked Sukie and asked what they were. Nasturtiums, she said, and lemon gem marigolds. And some lavender. And catmint. And white flox. All from our garden.

I almost missed them. Another day or two, and they would have been wilted beyond recognition.

And truly seeing them, my life was, in that moment, touched, even changed. My awareness heightened, sharpened; my spoken gratitude consummating that kind gift.

That experience of truly seeing the flowers reminded me of a favorite scene from a movie.

The film stars Robin Williams as John Keating, an English teacher at an exclusive boys boarding school. Dead Poets Society was filmed at an Episcopal prep school—St. Andrew’s in Middletown, Delaware, established in 1929 by a member of the DuPont family.

The scene I recall takes place in the foyer of one of the buildings, with school banners adorning the walls. There are glass trophy cases containing memorabilia and old photographs of athletic teams. The room has the feel of a chapel, the sacred precincts of sports and boys long since gone.

Keating instructs one of the students gathered round to read from the school hymnal. It’s a poem entitled To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time by the 17th century Anglican priest and poet Robert Herrick.

The student reads aloud: Gather ye rosebuds while ye may, Old time is still a-flying, And this same flower that smiles today, tomorrow will be dying.

Keating says to the students: ‘Gather ye rosebuds while ye may.’ The Latin word for that sentiment is Carpe Diem. Now who knows what that means? A boy answers: Carpe Diem. Seize the day.

Keating responds: Why does the writer use these words?

Because we are food for worms, lads. Because, believe it or not, each and every one of us in this room is one day going to stop breathing, turn cold, and die.

Now I would like you to step forward over here and peruse some of the faces from the past. Keating moves them over to the trophy case and huddles them close, turning their gaze upon the uniformed schoolboys in the old photographs.

You've walked past them many times, he says. I don't think you've really looked at them.

They're not that different from you, are they? Same haircuts. Full of hormones, just like you. Invincible, just like you feel. The world is their oyster. They believe they're destined for great things, just like many of you. Their eyes are full of hope, just like you.

Did they wait until it was too late to make from their lives even one iota of what they were capable? Because you see gentlemen, these boys are now fertilizing daffodils.

But if you listen real close, you can hear them whisper their legacy to you. Go on, lean in. Listen. Do you hear it? And behind them, Keating whispers in a gruff voice: Carpe. Hear it? Carpe. Carpe Diem. Seize the day, boys. Make your lives extraordinary.

How fitting these lines, as we grieve the loss of this genius, this  gifted comedic and improvisational genius so tragically imprisoned within by dark forces from which he  felt himself unable to escape, except by taking his own life.

And yet his Keating teaches us even now:

Carpe Diem. Seize the day.

Wake up. Pay attention. Of the schoolboys in those old photographs, long since deceased, he remarks: You’ve walked past them many times. I don’t think you’ve really looked at them.

So we might ask ourselves: what or whom do we walk past everyday without looking, without really noticing or truly seeing?

The disciples can’t imagine that a Canaanite woman could be real, says Sara Miles, a priest on the staff of St. Gregory of Nyssa, San Francisco, as she comments on this morning’s gospel reading.

Jewish scripture was full of these horror stories about the Canaanites who occupied the promised land and who had disgusting religious practices like worshipping idols and cross breeding with people of different faiths, among other abominations.[i]

The Canaanite woman is a heathen. So when she accosts Jesus pleading, ‘Lord, have mercy,’ she has no standing to do it and moreover she’s acting completely shamelessly, just waving her hand around in the air begging for recognition and insisting that Jesus should heal her daughter, something that she’s unqualified to even ask for.

And the disciples believe that they should keep non-persons like the Canaanite from raising their hands and demanding God’s attention.

They see themselves as keepers of the holy traditions. They’re protectors of the true people of God.

And they’re supposed to stay on guard, so that God won’t waste any precious mercy on the unpedigreed, on some stray mutt yelping around the flock.

And it seems that, at least according to Matthew’s gospel, even Jesus sees it this way. He tells the Canaanite woman to shut up and go away. I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel, he says.

Not truly seeing her, he dismisses her.

And then, as Miles asserts, this becomes a healing story, a story first and foremost about the healing of Jesus.

Something happened.

Jesus is challenged by this woman’s back talk, by her pushy insistence that she needs and wants him. This [woman] breaks Jesus open with her faith that God recognizes her too, that God calls her by name and that salvation is for everyone without exception.

And then Jesus knows— [he sees] suddenly—that he’s not just here for the chosen people...he’s here for us all, that salvation is for everyone without exception.

It’s a rough moment and it teaches us, the way that everything Jesus does in his human life teaches us how to be human...Jesus has to undergo the fully human pain of conversion.

He has to be broken and humbled and changed by the realization that someone who he has written off and insulted has consciousness—[is real]—and it hurts.

But it’s healing and like so many of God’s healing acts, the good news is that it happens in unexpected ways...

In my work as a hospice chaplain, I expect everyday to be broken open and humbled and changed. Because to really pay attention, to really see the person sitting in front of us as real—which is to say, to listen attentively and with care—will transform us.

Everyday, I walk away a new person, my universe expanded by listening carefully to the words of  another or at last seeing the flowers on my desk for what they truly are.

That conversion—that change of heart—is the challenge and the gift of being human, something we all share, whoever we are, whatever our work.

So lean in and listen. Do you hear it? It’s uttered every moment if you have the ears to hear and the hearts to respond.

Carpe. Carpe diem.

This is the only day. This is the only moment. Take hold of it gently. And let it change your life. AMEN

*A Sermon Preached at St. Nicholas Episcopal Church, Scarborough, ME ; August 17, 2014;
Proper 16, Year A; Revised Common Lectionary

















[i] Miles, The Rev. Sara Food for Dogs August 14, 2011 St. Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church, San Francisco, CA.

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