Pentecost 23 November 8, 2009

               Sermon by the Rt. Rev. Arthur E. Walmsley

Bishop of Connecticut (Retired)

                           It is in vain that you rise up early and go late to rest,

                                 eating the bread of anxious toil;

                                for he gives sleep to his beloved. – Psalm 127:2

 I was not here on Sunday two weeks ago – not playing hooky; we were at the Deering Community Church where I preached. And so I missed hearing Kathleen Kenyon’s ministry minute. Thanks to the Holy Cross website, I have been able to read it. And I have been praying with it ever since. Kathleen talked about the fact that Holy Cross had become a place of balance in her life. In her words:

“I spent a long time trying to find my center until I looked closely one night and found it had wings and moved easily in the slightest breeze, so now I spend less time sitting and more time soaring.” She ended, “Holy Cross and the people I’ve met here at this parish have helped me rediscover those wings.”

That is a very striking image she used – the very center of her being has wings, wings which respond to the slightest movement of air. It is also a very biblical image, one especially found in the Book of Psalms. Listen to these verses from Psalm 55.

                O God, hear my prayer; do not hide yourself from my request

                                Listen to me and answer me; I have no peace because of all my cares. . . .

            Fear and trembling have come over me, and horror overwhelms me.

                                And I said, “Oh, that I had wings like a dove? I would fly away and be at rest. . . .

The author of the Psalm is heavy-hearted, struggling hard to make sense of life in a time of great trouble in a world of violence and strife in the city.

              In the evening, in the morning, and at noonday, I will complain and lament

                                 to the Lord, and God will hear my voice.

We read the Psalms – no, most often at Holy Cross we sing them, because they were written as poems to be recited as part of worship by the Israelite people. And one theme which occurs with frequency is Kathleen’s image of wings.

In Psalm 17 the writer pleads to God:

                Keep me as the apple of your eye; hide me under the shadow of your wings

And in Psalm 57, the author laments

                Be merciful to me, O God…for I have taken refuge in you;

                                in the shadow of your wings I                 will take refuge.

So, too, in today’s Psalm which we sang a moment ago:

                It is vain that you rise up so early and go to bed so late;

                                vain too to eat the bread of toil, for he gives to his beloved sleep. Ps. 127:3

We struggle hard, but it is God who gives us rest and relief.

Of all the books in the Hebrew Scriptures, the Book of Psalms is the most accessible to the ups and downs of our life. Skim through them and you soon realize that they are the voice of our humanity, of life as it really is – times of elation, periods of grief, occasions of rage, not only about what happens to us as individual persons but what we read in the newspapers or view on television. Where else can you go and almost literally shake your fist in God’s face, and say, “Why, why?” Early last month, many of us went to the funeral at the Deering Church for a longtime member of the church, and we were invited to recite the 23rd Psalm, The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. I looked around, and at least half of us were reciting the familiar words without looking at a book because we knew them by heart. Why? For some it may be the Psalm is the only section of the Bible besides the Lord Prayer which they remember from childhood. But the words of consolation ring true to us

                Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,

                                I fear no evil, for thou art with me.

Last Sunday, our ministry minute was by a sixth grader, Tammi Compagna. She talked about how she was frightened at first in the Christian education program when it was in the basement of the old church. And then she went on to say

I love that here people know my name and I know everyone else’s name. At my old church people didn’t really know anyone so they just kept to themselves. Overall, church is one of my favorite places to be.

That says it so simply and clearly. So, too, the Psalms are about being lost and being found, being down in “the pits” and being restored to selfhood. What are the experiences and dimensions of one’s own life which are “the pits?” Maybe you felt lonely, helpless, or cheated. As a woman you lacked power, were relegated to the kitchen. Or you lost a job. Or faced an illness or death of someone whom you loved. The Psalms make it clear that faith in God does not protect us from the pit. When one is stuck in life’s struggles, one cannot even imagine that good will come out of trouble. And so the theme over and over in the Psalms focuses not on the pit but on the One who is present, even rules there, God. It is the reality of God which makes clear that the pit is not the “place where you ought to be.”1

We are of course all subject to the weather of our moods. We say that we are depressed, and some of us settle for the consolation found in a bottle, or if we are better off, go to a mental health clinic. And that may simply drive us into greater despair. The Psalms point us to a deeper place, which is to let go of feeling sorry for ourselves and take the matter to God. If need be, to take the risk of shaking a mental fist at God and say, “You got us into this life. Now you help us get out of this miserable place.” We are more than our emotions. Our self, our center to use Kathleen’s word, has wings, the possibility to soar, to rediscover that we can claim our wings. As I have listened to each of the ministry minutes this Fall, they share one thing in common: when we do let go of ourselves, trust ourselves to a community where God is found, we discover a new dimension, a new possibility.

Just about the time Kathleen Kenyon was celebrating her new-found wings two Sundays ago, I chose to invite the congregation in Deering to listen to a poem which also talks about wings, or at least one of God’s creatures with wings. Titled, Wild Geese, it was written by the poet Mary Oliver, a remarkable woman who began writing poetry in 1950, when she was 14 years old. Her first volume of poems appeared in l963. Since then there have been 17 more. Her poems are almost always about the wild creatures of her native haunts near Provincetown, Massachusetts, where she lives: marsh hawks, snakes, crickets. For Oliver, the world’s beauties exist not only for our pleasure and use, but to point us in praise and gratitude to their Creator. But  rather than talk about her, let me share Wild Geese:

You do not have to be good.

You do not have to walk on your knees

for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.

You only have to let the soft animal of your body

love what it loves.

Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.

Meanwhile the world goes on.

Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain

are moving across the landscapes,

over the prairies and the deep trees,

the mountains and the rivers.

Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,

are heading home again.

Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,

the world offers itself to your imagination,

calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting –

over and over announcing your place

in the family of things.


There is a classic hymn written and sung by the Shakers which sums it up.


‘Tis the gift to be simple, ‘tis the gift to be free

“tis the gift to come down where we ought to be

and when we find ourselves in the place just right,

‘twill be in the valley of love and delight.

When true simplicity is gained

to bow and to bend we shan’t be ashamed

to turn, turn will be our delight

till be turning, turning we come round right.

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