Between Two Mountains and Beginning Lent, 1992, All Saints’. San Francisco
One of the things I do for sustenance and substance is to live and work as a resident minister at the University of San Francisco. This means I have an apartment on the sixth floor of an undergraduate dormitory to do what one brochure calls a “ministry of presence.” I meet, enjoy, work with, serve, students in my place or their room or the hallway or the dining room or the laundry room, at the library or the gym or at an evening weekday mass or in the elevator. It is pretty informal, unstructured. But sometimes there are things like field trips and yesterday we had two: in the morning we went out to Lincoln Park for a guided tour the refurbished Palace of the Legion of honor and last night we saw Anna DeVere Smith in a performance of “Twilight: Los Angeles 1992″ in between I napped. It was a pretty full day. And then it hit me late last night that the events of the day, the things we’ve heard and seen, were like the geography of the lessons for today.
It is not difficult to see the two mountains in the Old Testament and the Gospel as paintings, though actually I can never read anything about Moses on Mount Sinai without seeing a movie spectacular. Mention the 10 Commandments and I see great clouds, thunder and lightning, big music, Charlton Heston and Vista-Vision! It is important to note the Sinai is a part of the background for the mount of the Transfiguration and the gospel lesson. The gospel seen as a kind of icon. It looks backward to Sinai as it looks forward to the resurrection. The mount of the Transfiguration’s: Jesus, Moses and Elijah. Now I see this without cinematic affects, but more with the pure clarity of a mountain on a spring morning. No music, but very fresh air; a clear, deep, eloquent silence. The scene is a timeless moment, same time as and history as God sees it, a rich resolved tapestry where love prevails. A deep and profound silence. I think of the opening lines of “Sunday in the Park with George.” “Order, design, composition, tension, balance, light, harmony.”
It is natural to take a deep breath and say, “Yes, this is as it should be.” And it is tough not to feel a little grandiose in this scene. Yesterday coming back from the Legion, although balance and harmony, all those beautiful paintings, great carving, the Rodin sculptures. the curves of the building itself all affected me. Riding home on the 38 bus I saw people’s paintings, was more was aware of more of the life and harmony of who we are, I felt like I was looking at the world as an artist does. It felt like a kind of grace by association. I started to redesign Geary Street.
And that’s why I can relate to go to proactive Saint Peter who speaks up, as ever, in the Gospel. Always saying the wrong thing, good old Peter, the original extrovert. Earlier in Matthew he had gotten into a disagreement with Jesus about the forthcoming death in Jerusalem. Peter, “this must never happen!” Later he will tell Jesus, “I will never desert or deny you!” Here it is, “Lord, it is good that we are here. If you wish I will make three dwellings.” Grace by declaration is such an Anglican thing too. Let’s arrange the truth, set it to music put the flowers over there, and now we bow. Good St. Peter, his problem is that he is always ready to break in and talk too much, to wrap it up too nice and too soon, for there is always more.
So finally God interrupts him, “this is my son, the beloved, listen to him. And when the disciples heard this they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear.” For it is terrifying to listen to the word of God, enfleshed in the world, “Listen to him.”
And listen to him in Golgotha, the last mountain. When we’re heading for in 40+ days and nights. The terrible fact of the cross, the deepest obscenity, noontime of the hottest, foulest, longest day of the world. Listen to him, “my God, my God, why have you forsaken me.” Terrifying not just because his death but ours as well. The death of hope, of change, the death of the best picture of what we look like and why and how we love. How can we respond?
As T.S. Eliot writes in The Love song of J Alfred Prufrock:
“And when I am formulated, sprawling on a pin
When I’m pinned and wriggling on the wall
Then how should I begin
to spit out all the butt-ends of my days and ways?
And how should I presume?”
How can we presume to respond to the cross?
Last night I almost walked out on Anna Deveare Smith. I told myself it was because I needed to get home and finish the sermon for this morning, but it was really because of her show: a one-woman performance re-creating the cacophony of the LA riots. All the different voices of anger and sadness, innovation and denial, justice, compassion and hope. All the different people separated by colour and class, geography, prejudice, and pain, crying out for reconciliation. The same cry really: “My God, why have you forsaken me?”
And after coming home in the front seat of a cab – because I really didn’t want to ride the 38 Geary after seeing that play – I wondered, how can we dare to begin to respond to the reality of the cross,? Not only then but now? Is there a way to live with it that does not lead to deep despair? For justice focusing too much on the beauty of the transfigured life can lead to a rarefied view of the world; fixating too firmly on the other direction is just another way to fall out of balance. How can we balance between the two, how can we fully respond?
We live in the city of hills and valleys, and I think we are called, for the most part, to stick to the valleys. In Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Robert Persig writes that Zen is for valleys and I think the same is true for us. Summits give it the big view, bright moments out of time, to remember and learn from and reflect on. But we can’t and shouldn’t spend much time there in the business of living. Urban Holmes writes somewhere that Christian conversion is “a marinade rather than a glaze. We are transformed by being soaked in the gospel.” And this plain process takes time.
The season of Lent is that time. Time to make adjustments, to take a deep breath and listen, with a naked intent; for self-examination, repentance, fasting, prayer, self-denial, reading and meditation. Time to mindfully and prayerfully get on the journey. Not always on the mountain, down in the various valleys where we live and breathe in all that. Market, Mission, Montgomery, Castro, Masonic, Ashbury, Haight, and even Waller: all the common roads that run between sides of history; between the riots and the Rodin’s. So we come here, to almost the beginning of the season of Lent to get underway. We come to a table between two crosses, between the suffering Son of Man and the reigning Son of God, to take food for the journey into the depths of our daily life, which is finally, by the grace of God in the journey of Jesus, the way home.