a homily preached by The Rev. Patricia Rose on April 3rd.
About 15 years ago, I was at a long retreat in the Blue Ridge Mountains in Virginia. It was a part of a series of 4 retreats a year for 5 years with the same group of people. In our retreats with very skilled facilitators, we would engage in various heart opening activities, a stripping away of some of the outer layers of our false identity that we humans develop over our lives to protect ourselves from our injuries or feelings of guilt and failure; or from our desire for acceptance and approval.
And so we would go into a less defended place together, with our masks down a bit, or a lot, which feels vulnerable but also lighter, more real, more free. The feeling makes you want to live in that place. It feels more like “home.”
So one afternoon, we were doing an extended meditation practice, many hours long, using a particular kind of breathing that takes you into a deep place. And it was during this practice that I had an experience that affected me profoundly and still does.
We were all laying on mats with blankets in a large and beautiful round room, and a couple of hours into the meditation, this vision arose in my mind’s eye, like a film playing across my consciousness, and I saw from a distance and from above, a ferry boat in the sea. It was if I was moving closer to it and saw it’s details more and more clearly, 2 floors, white
And then I saw that it was beginning to sink. It was listing to one side, and I could hear the cries of people and men and children and mothers. And as as the boat got so low on one side that water was beginning to flood into it, and people were falling off, I felt myself suddenly plunge into the water, going deeper in the darkness, terrified. I could feel the terror all around me. I could feel mothers desperately reaching for and searching for their children under the water, trying to save them.
And I could feel my helplessness, and deep sadness.
I was trying to swim to the surface, but it was far away, I didn’t even know what direction I was swimming in.
And as I struggled to get to the surface I felt the fear and reality of my imminent death.
But then suddenly, as I felt completely unable to hold my breath any longer, I came to the surface and into air to breathe.
At that moment, I found myself back in the retreat room with my eyes open, I had lurched to sitting up on my mat, and I was choking and gasping for breath.
I felt exactly as if I literally had a brush with death and had come back. It felt as real as if it had happened. And as I gulped in that first full breath, I felt such utter gratitude and wonder, and I said out loud, “I’m alive!”
And then, almost immediately I also felt a rush of the most tender and encompassing love for everyone in the room, these people I knew and loved still on their mats, safe, and meditating. I felt “I’m alive and I am not helpless. I have the power AND the opportunity to love these people. They are right here.” I felt so joyous and fortunate.
This experience was a potent gift of grace – a glimpse of the fullness of life that we are called to. A glimpse of knowing the utter preciousness and wonder of the gift of life and the power of being able to love. It was an experience of remembering what is important, and what doesn’t matter, what we don’t need to carry around. It is not necessary to nearly drown to experience this preciousness. We are not only called to know this, we are fashioned by God to know this, we are CREATED to do exactly this.
In today’s reading of Isaiah is what I believe to be the most potent lines in all of our Scripture.
Thus says the Lord,
Do not remember the former things,
or consider the things of old.
I am about to do a new thing;
now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?
In every moment
that new thing is US, each one of us.
We are not who we think we are,
We are not the mask we wear, not our history or our habits, or our ways of thinking.
“Forget the things of old, do not remember the former things” says the Lord
Christ is leading us to the death of a shell, the death of an imprisoning, constricting sense of who we think we are, an identity we have become deeply attached to.
In truth, we are being born anew in each moment by God’s love, “I am doing a new thing, do you not perceive it?”
We are called to shed the protecting covering we have developed in response to memories of hurt, guilt, sense of failure. We are called to let the separate self we believe ourselves to be to die.
It’s terrifying. It’s hard, but through that death, we can enter into the eternal, the timeless presence of God right here and now. We are called and made to be the preciousness of life and love.
It’s not a minor adjustment. It requires steadfast practices and self awareness of our own thoughts and defenses. And it requires trust, trust in God, trust in life, trust i our own goodness and good intentions.
The good news is, we are not alone in this work. There are strong, good, brilliant seekers all around us on earth.
We can come together in a place like this to build trust, to support one another in this life giving work, to see the perfection in one another, to say, it’s ok to be you as you are, we know we are here to heal our memories and to love one another into the fullness of life.
And significantly, we are not alone because God is with us. We have this name “God” as if we understand what it means, but we do know we are not alone because we can experience that a powerful force of love and compassion and truth and light is with us, supporting us, and helping us all the way, helping us whenever we consent to it and never against our will. That is the power of the trust we are given in being alive.
We are not alone because we have the embodiment of divine love and compassion with us, Jesus Christ.
And we are not alone because we are connected also to all our ancestors on earth through our DNA, and the communion of saints and a legion of angels, not just metaphorically but with grace and energy. We are NOT separate and alone. And everything we do matters, because what we do for our own resurrection, we do for all.
We can be inspired in this journey by this most powerful scriptural image from today’s gospel, another favorite of min. Mary’s joy pouring out an abundance of fragrant precious oil on Jesus’ feet, pouring out love. Perhaps this was a moment for her of having some sense of a brush with death in an encroaching fear of Jesus’ death, as if she came to the surface and realized the preciousness of life and the power of love, with Jeuss right there with her still, and alive.
Imagine her there with the living Christ, seeing his face, his electrifying eyes, hearing his voice. And maybe she didn’t think it through, just on some wild impulse she went and got the jar of expensive oil, and sat down and poured it, thick golden fragrant oil running over his lower legs and feet. Maybe it felt as if the Holy Spirit had tipped her arm to pour out so much oil and maybe she felt so overjoyed and transfixed by that joy. Maybe she heard Judas talking but didn’t hear what he said, as she was just filled with the delight and love and gratitude for the Beloved One.
It’s a timeless moment, transcending time to arrive here with us, transfixing us with the echo of the truth we already know in our hearts because our creator planted it there:
Who we are is the pouring out of abundant love, the ecstasy of knowing the preciousness of life. We are made for exactly this.
If I could, I would now end this sermon with the word that starts with “A,” that we are not allowed to say at this time. But it’s coming.