Friday, May 9, 2008

A BIG DAY ON THE MOUNTAIN

Amid all the pomp and pageantry that is a part of the Episcopal Church, the very humble Rt. Rev. Desmond Tutu appeared in the pulpit of All Saints Chapel, Sewanee, TN, this morning to address those who received their various theological degrees and awards. A gracious man with a voice that sometimes dropped to a small squeak of humility, he delivered a homily filled with anecdotes and grateful prayers. Before he began serious preaching, he told the story about a priest’s small son who questioned his father about always falling on his knees and praying before he delivered a sermon. “Why do you do that?” the boy asked his father. The priest replied, “Because I’m asking God to help me deliver a good sermon.” The boy looked at his father, puzzled, and said, “Well, why doesn’t He?”

When the academicians and clergy processed into the gray stone Gothic Cathedral that is All Saints Chapel, the Presiding Bishop of The Episcopal Church of America, The Rt. Rev. Katherine Jefferts Schori, walked alongside Bishop Tutu. A dynamic leader of the Church, she is the woman Bishop Tutu said not only delivered an elegant sermon, she looked elegant. I was sitting right on the aisle and could have reached out and touched the “hem of her garment.” She was smiling broadly, although we all know that she and Bishop Tutu carry weighty burdens as bishops of the Church in countries struggling to become healthy, inclusive bulwarks in contemporary society. I was sitting in a back pew, so Bishop Tutu’s remarks were difficult to understand, but he was like a gracious host, complimenting Bishop Schori, praising the seminarians, and inviting applause, as the saying goes, for “all God’s children.” Tutu said all of us helped God end apartheid in South Africa, that we have been collaborators with God to accomplish this work. He told the story of a traveler who noticed a great crop of corn growing in a field he passed. The traveler stopped and told the farmer what a beautiful field of corn he and God had created. The farmer thought about it for a moment, then said, “You should have seen it when God had it all by himself.” Tutu concluded his homily by voicing pleas from God for us to help Him end wars, hate, sexism, to create laugher and community in the world. He received a standing ovation.

In early Spring about seven years ago, I was invited to preach a sermon in the very same All Saints Chapel I sat in today, a funeral homily for The Rev. Elmer Boykin, who once served as rector of Epiphany in New Iberia, Louisiana. I know how it feels to climb up to the “Eagle’s Nest,” as the locals call the pulpit, and to look out at hundreds of people, wondering if the Holy Spirit is going to put inspiring and comforting words into your mouth, or if your courage is going to take wings and fly away before you speak the first word from that eagle’s perch. The homily I delivered was the first funeral homily I preached after being ordained a deacon, and by Episcopal homiletic standards, I probably eulogized more than sermonized. However, even today when introduced to some people here at Sewanee, they remember the homily and say, “so you’re the deacon who…” That experience in the Eagle’s Nest was an awesome experience. In fact, when I woke up at the Sewanee Inn the day following the funeral and looked out at a Spring day, dogwoods and forsythia flowering everywhere on The Mountain, I felt that I had been touched by the Holy Spirit. I kept returning to The Mountain for visits until we finally found this cottage on Fairbanks Circle, right on the campus of the University of the South. You could say that a funeral homily initiated the Sewanee experience for me.

I hadn’t long been ordained a deacon when I delivered that funeral homily, and I blamed my vocational change from being a feature news writer to being a member of Holy Orders on Fr. Boykin. In my homily about him, I told the story of how no woman had ever read at the Church of the Epiphany in New Iberia until Fr. Boykin walked up to me one Sunday, handed me a bulletin containing the readings, and said, “You can read this morning.” When I went up to the lectern, I discovered I was about two inches too short to see the Bible on the lectern. I was hidden behind the eagle, with its outspread wings, carved on the lectern’s face. When I opened my mouth to speak, it appeared that the eagle had come alive and was issuing the Word. Miss Pearl, a ninety-year old woman sitting on the front row, fainted, and I’ve never known whether she did so because she thought the eagle was speaking or she was shocked by my breaking tradition – just one of those forward females reading and causing a big commotion. Anyway, Fr. Boykin started me on the path toward becoming ordained; in fact, I became the first woman ordained in the Church of Epiphany in its 150-year old history. I love and respect the people in this little church. They have honored me many times as a lay leader and as an ordained deacon. Last May as I departed New Iberia, Epiphanites honored me with The St. George Award, a national Episcopal award for distinguished service leading toward the physical, mental, and moral development of youth, signed by Presiding Bishop Katherine Jefferts Schori, the woman I could reach out and touch this morning. Such is the heart of this small Louisiana congregation – like Bishop Tutu, always the gracious host, they honor and care for the Church’s servants and have been collaborating with God to make this a better world since pre-Civil War days. I leave Sewanee for a short visit to New Iberia next week. I hope those Epiphanites enjoy FLOOD ON THE RIO TECHE!
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