"Settling Down to a Life of Separation"

Homily for Third Sunday in Lent 2020

Ascension Memorial Church, Ipswich, MA

“Once the plague had shut the gates of the town, the people settled down to a life of separation, debarred from the living warmth that gives forgetfulness of all.” 

~Albert Camus, The Plague

These words drawn from Camus’s existentialist classic descriptively lend themselves to our sudden reality, to this odd state of affairs in which we find ourselves.  We thought we saw it coming, until it arrived, quite by surprise.

You might judge these precautionary, draconian measures we have adopted as extreme, but consider how we will feel knowing we did all in our power to minimize the worst of what preys upon us, this pandemic, the likes of which we’ve not seen in over a century.

What Camus only imagined, we are experiencing.  Not the plague, but a dangerous virus, COVID-19 properly called—and in order to do our part to contain this highly transmissible contagion, we are settling down, and adapting ourselves, to a life of separation.   

Once the plague had shut the gates of the town, the people settled down to a life of separation, debarred from what brings joy, passion and comfort to their lives—debarred from the living warmth that gives forgetfulness of all.

The existential fear of being separated and alone—of being cut off from one another…is perhaps what we fear as much as the virus itself.

Please leave me my warm blanket of love, my warm bath that allows all lesser concerns, all needless anxieties, to fall away, and be forgotten, at least for a time.

Health directives promoting “social distancing” are now suspending our daily routines, our treasured past times, our rituals and worship services.  How then will we access that living warmth that comforts and satisfies our souls, that gives us the confidence of knowing that all manner of things shall be well?

I stood behind a rather full shopping cart at Market Basket days ago.  I went to stock up on provisions, like everyone else, so many of us looking unsettled, trying to appear cheerful and non-aggressive.  The checkout line extended two full lengths of the store and as I stood there at mid-day hoping not to have to return here again anytime soon, and did I sense the woman behind me keeping her distance from me, and me keeping my distance from her? 

Jesus brought his disciples with him through a region inhabited by impure people, people who made you impure just by standing in their presence.  Why was he with that woman at the well, talking to her, asking for water in the blistering heat of midday?

Jesus was thirsty and could not access the water from the well without use of her bucket.  As the woman drew water to quench his thirst, Jesus drew the words needed to tell of another kind of thirst that runs deeper than the depth of this well, a thirst we all share—with Jesus and with this woman.  She helps Jesus quench a thirst that always returns.  He offers her water that once sipped gushes up from within us, flowing so abundantly and unceasingly through us, such that the burden of thirst this woman shoulders in coming to this well every day so falls away, as to be forgotten.

Is there a well of living waters within us that once primed and flowing can satisfy our deepest human thirst and make all the parched places in our lives no longer burdensome, but a joy to work tirelessly to water, nurture, heal and make whole?

To whom do we turn, where do we go, to make the well within us flow forth reliably and unceasingly?  Where are people required to go to bring their hearts, minds, and souls to God?  Is it to this church, to this mountain where our ancestors chose to be with God, or is it to the Temple in Jerusalem?

Jesus surprises the woman, and us as well, by declaring all that as no longer necessary.  No need to travel to a designated location for access to the living waters. “The hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.”

How astoundingly fitting these scriptures are from today’s lectionary given our present circumstances!  Jesus required to observe “social distancing” yet finding a way to connect with and to honor the dignity of a woman burdened by her unrelenting thirst;  Jesus, the one we come to church to worship telling us that the place where we worship is not the point of our worship. Wherever we find ourselves, there we can direct our hearts, minds and souls to the one who walks with us always.

These unprecedented circumstances under which we now live and worship, and will for weeks to come, may change forever how we see and relate to one another, and may change forever how we enter more deeply into relationship with the One who made us and loves us and watches over us.

Once COVID-19 shut the gates of the town, we settled down to a life of separation, but we were not debarred from the living warmth that gives forgetfulness of all.  No, we awakened to a living warmth within us that gushes and grows within us by finding ways to share it with others, and we also found ways, like this live streaming service, to turn hearts, minds and souls in spirit and truth to the one who is always found in the Temple, but only needs a prayer from us, to be present to us.

Homily for Randy Hackett

Homily for Randy Hackett

February 8th, 2020

Ascension Memorial Church

Good day to you all–and welcome–family, friends, and fans of Randy Hackett.  We are here to do what we need to do–to acknowledge a great loss, to share what we love about Randy, to laugh, to cry, to feel deep gratitude, and to take home with us some Randy mojo. 

The work we do here today is important, but what’s needed is a light grip. Life works better that way. If we insist on being serious all the time, we will miss kind invitations, by those who love us, to put down what we are doing and join them by entering a kinder, gentler, more playful, more expansive world than the one we are holding onto tightly. It behooves us to loosen our grip on the safe, the ordinary, the familiar to risk tasting something transcendent.  Experiences of transcendence, of tasting what lies beyond our grasp, bring us alive every time.  And with every taste, we can hardly keep from laughing. 

I hope you’ve seen Randy’s 31-second Vonage commercial.  It can’t be justly explained in words, but here I go: a woman is at home speaking to an off-camera interviewer. She is pleased to say how easy it was to change her phone service to Vonage.  As she is speaking, at some distance behind her—at the far end of the house—a man appears in a wide doorway, he’s in his pajamas—her husband?—he’s clearly enjoying a middle-age version of the Loony-Goony,…and he’s really good, he’s bringing it, he is in the groove. 

The woman takes a look over her shoulder, then, with her face back to the camera, you know from her wistful expression that this is by no means the first time Mr. Pajamas has danced the Loony-Goony around the house—nor can he be expected to put a lid on it for the sake of company.   

[Quick side bar comment:  Could be just me, but I’m thinking this scenario has a real-life Randy/Binni feel to it.]

Every time I play this 31-second video it makes me laugh….and I’m the kind of person who wonders why it makes me laugh? Randy knew.  Randy knew the chemistry of humor.  He knew it so well he could teach it, which can’t be easy, to explain why humor works.  So let me try, for Randy’s sake, because I suspect it may helps us understand him better, and admire him all the more.

There’s something important at work in Randy’s performance-driven comedy that can be seen also in his crazy practice of swimming in the ocean.  “Wild swimming” they call it in England.  The term covers any form of swimming done in a natural setting, especially during the winter.  People swim in the wild for various reasons, mostly related to physical health.   The best reason I have heard is this, that diving into a wild body of water has a way of transporting you out of your normal world—its like taking a condensed holiday. 

Brilliant comedy, like a swim in the Atlantic Ocean, has the power to take your breath away, and then give it back to you.  In either case, we suddenly, almost against our will, find ourselves plunged into a new and wider world, where our horizon is now vastly expanded, and that pressure we’d been feeling–pressing down on us for so long that we’d come to accept it—that pressure is suddenly gone, and the difference in barometric pressure sucks the breath right out of us, making us giddy and light headed, making us feel ever, ever so much alive.

I wonder about Randy, toward the end of his life.  He was so accustomed to the spiritual highs of entering vastly wider worlds by means of comedy and physical activity. I can appreciate how frustrating it had to have been for him, as life became so serious and painful, for him to begin to lose sight of life’s invitations to transcendence.  Were the invitations there at all, or could he not see them?

Randy was not afraid of pain, not afraid of adventure, not afraid of cold ocean water, not afraid of dying; he was afraid of not being alive.  He was afraid of being confined to an ordinary world without room enough to do the Loony-Goony, a world in which he was not be at liberty to dive into new and expanded worlds of transcendence, a world in which he could no longer make us laugh, no longer make himself laugh, and so taste the joy of having his breath taken away, and given back again.