Meditations delivered at Holy Cross Monastery, West Park, New York, with candidates for ordination to the transitional diaconate in the Diocese of New York, March 7, 2006.The day thou givest
Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
Pray for Andrew, Emily, Joel, John, Nora, and Sharon, that they may faithfully serve God’s church as deacons, and later this year, God and the Bishop willing, and the people assenting, be ordained to the priesthood and serve in that capacity all their days.
All of you have been to a greater or lesser extent involved in seminary life for the last couple of years, I take it — and that life has provided a matrix and a structure not entirely of your own devising. Upon graduation, you will find yourself liberated and free, but also, as one of my favorite playwrights once said, so free you might come loose! It is a bit like being born, graduating from seminary and taking on the life of an ordained minister of the gospel — and when the cord is cut you will find the need to breathe on your own. Ordination to the diaconate may come as a bit of the laying-on-of-hands slap needed to start you breathing independently — and it is nice to know that your first official diaconal utterance will be a charge to the congregation to “go forth into the world rejoicing in the power of the Spirit.”
It is of that world and of that Spirit that I want to speak to you this morning. I will reflect some of the structures that can help to ground you in your ministry — something to take the place of the seminary’s — since few parishes can provide the kind of hot and cold running liturgies that seminaries can provide. I want to offer you something of a portable chapel you can take with you wherever in the world you go — perhaps more like the tent of the Exodus than the Temple of Jerusalem, but where, nonetheless, you may be able to say, Truly God is in this place.
I want to begin with the opening verses of a Psalm, which I’d like us to read responsively. (Read Psalm 19:1-6)
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That 19th Psalm begins with a wonderful, cosmic image of the heavens declaring God’s glory as they slowly revolve, one day telling its tale to another, one night imparting knowledge to another, a kind of cosmic Algonquin Round Table of the stars, sun and moon, who tell and retell God’s glory even though they do not have words or language, and their voices are not heard — yet their message has gone out, as if in response to a divinely diaconal dismissal, to the ends of the world.
Modern science, of course, thanks to Copernicus and Galileo, reverses the image. It isn’t the heavens that spin about a stable earth, but a spinning earth whose rotation is but one of many complex movements in vast a celestial engine. As charming (or alarming) as the image may be, the sun is not actually let out of his bridegroom’s chamber to run from one end of the world to the other. No, the sun is relatively immobile; it is the earth that slowly and majestically turns to sun itself evenly on all sides, turning and turning as it rotates day by day.
From a vantage point far enough away in space, perpendicular to a line drawn from the sun to the earth, one could watch the shadow of night pass into the break of day from east to west, as a long band of dawn transects the earth from north to south. Scientists call it the terminator — but one might just as well call it the instigator. For as night ends, day begins, and vice versa — and though the sun goes down (or appears to go down) as the Preacher and Hemingway after him both observed, the sun also rises.
Speaking of scientists, the late physicist Richard Feynman, known for his quirky and off-beat genius, observed that wherever the terminator/instigator band of dawn passes over an area populated by human beings, there exists, simultaneously with it, a band of people stretching from north to south and moving as a wave from east to west — all brushing their teeth. And this great wave of tooth-brushing sweeps across and around the globe as surely and substantially as the band of dawn itself, leaving behind the faint odor of mint.
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But there is yet another diurnal and nocturnal cycle at work in the world. There is something else that happens as the dawn moves across the world, and as noonday, and evening, and night do the same. There is something else that sweeps around the globe besides sunlight and spearmint. Some of the residents of this house may well remember the days when not just four but eight successive bands of human activity moved around the world like this. Matins, lauds, prime, tierce, sext, nones, vespers, and compline skimmed across the surface of the earth by day and by night, coating it with prayer. So the bands move in their ordered rounds, and you can hear them singing, telling and retelling God’s glory in many languages, day and night imparting knowledge to each other, as their voice goes out unto all lands.
So the church’s life of prayer has a deep and intimate involvement with the cosmos. Even though we know that all times are in God’s hand, and that one day or one hour isn’t really more important than another in God’s eyes, still we echo the cosmic rotations and revolutions of the sun and moon and earth in our prayers and liturgy. It is no accident that the invention of timepieces in the Christian West owes its impetus to the need for the monks to keep their hours. And so they have kept them for over a millennium, mirroring the cosmos in miniature, like the precious illuminations in a book of hours, telling the hours, the days, the seasons, and the years of our Lord.
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And you too, as transitional deacons and then as priests will have a part to play in this cosmic dance, the church’s liturgical dance that mirrors the world God made. For apart from the grand cycles such as the scary and nervous-making millennium, or the festive Jubilee year, and other such generational anniversaries — at which few of us have the opportunity to officiate — our stateliest liturgical pace takes its rhythm from the yearly cycle of the seasons, from Advent through Christmas and on beyond that pivotal commemorationto Epiphany, the season that stretches out towards or shrinks away from Lent depending on the date of Easter. Of course, that Queen of Feast’s mobility is still determined by the moon, the inconstant moon, as its fullness lands on the far side of the spring’s equal balance of day and night — so linked are we still to the heavens’ movements. Then on we course again to bright red Pentecost and on through the greenery to Holy Cross (a hat tip to this house), and we find the year fully marked and quartered with its stational ember days — and will you miss writing ember letters? — and finally back to Advent once again, our year decked and draped with liturgically colored prayer all along the way. This is something you will engage in with altar guilds: — sorting through the parish store of frontals and stoles, burses and veils, and the more exotic accessories such as pulpit falls and bible bookmarks.
But you will also, as deacons first proclaim the gospels that recite the round of the year from expectation through birth and baptism, on to death and resurrection and the course of teaching and reflection. Then as priests, you will find yourself saying words even more closely bound up with those seasons — the collects of the Sundays and the feasts and fasts, and the prefaces that lead to the great hymn of praise the church raises Sunday by Sunday as it joins with the angels who look down upon our spinning globe: Holy, Holy, Holy Lord, God of power and might, heaven and earth are full of your glory.
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At a smaller scale there is the monthly cycle of the Psalter, perhaps Thomas Cranmer’s simplest and most thoughtful gift to those who follow that measured rule. As you know, Daily Office Lectionary of the BCP provides a seven-week cycle for the psalter, but Cranmer’s old thirty-day rotation is still widely used. My own community and the Order of Saint Julian, among others, use this monthly ordered reading of the psalms, rather than the 7-week cycle. We also retain all the bits of psalmody that version omits as distasteful, thereby able to fulfill John Cassian’s advice fully to internalize all of the emotions of the Psalter. He said, “When we sing the Psalms, we remember all that our carelessness has brought on us, or our effort has secured, or divine providence has granted to us, or slippery and subtle forgetfulness lost to us, or human weakness brought about in us.”[Dialogues IX 18]
I believe we gain something in this ordered and full reading of the Psalms — in addition to facing those hard nuggets of frail human reality that make the Psalms a challenge. And we equally enjoy the sometimes dissonant intersections of feasts with penitential psalms — much as one can enjoy the passing dissonances in a Bach chorale, or the sharp bite of a peppercorn on a mild serving of salmon. The hard bits and the dissonances we encounter in this orderly reading of the Psalter month by month, serve as reminders that at the heavenly scale we mirror in minature, the orderly laws of gravitation and of physics, as they work upon the substance of the cosmos, will sometimes have the effect of wiping out the dinosaurs.
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Then there is our weekly cycle, centered on Sunday, but inherited from a deeper and far older tradition that deliberately mirrored step-by-step the act of creation itself, and stubbornly stuck to it for all these years in spite of the fact that seven won’t go very easily into either thirty or twelve or 365. As deacons and as priests, as you settle into your ministries you will find this weekly cycle of the church’s life to be as regular as that of the world — one thing at least upon which sacred and secular are of a common mind — so powerful is that memory of God’s creative act that only the French were bold enough, during their Revolution, to attempt to metricize seven into ten.
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And finally, the smallest, fastest spinning wheel in this great cosmic mechanism: the day God gives us day by day, and which we bless and sanctify with prayer, with daily breaking of the daily bread, and most especially with the Daily Office, which has, since at least the time of Benedict himself, been called by that astounding and awe-inspiring name: the Work of God.
Now, in spite of its antiquity and universality, the Daily Office is one of those things that many people, some even in the church, just don’t get. I recall something that a priest (and I will use that somewhat paradoxical phrase “a secular priest” because that’s exactly what he was) said to me some years ago. His comment came at dinner after the life profession liturgy of one of my brothers. As required by our rule and customary, this profession ofvows took place in the context of a celebration of the Holy Eucharist, which was set on a Saturday afternoon to allow for friends and family to attend. After the liturgy (a lengthy one in comparison with most parish services), the assembly repaired to the refectory for dinner. When it was time for Vespers, the brothers began to excuse themselves to return to the chapel. I was sitting across from this secular priest, who asked where we were going. I told him that it was time for Evening Prayer. He looked at me with astonished disbelief and said, with a somewhat scornful tone, “You’re going to pray again!?” I looked at him, probably equally disbelieving, and simply said, “Why, yes; it’s what we do.”
I’m afraid he didn’t get it, as many, sadly even in the church, don’t. The irony is that the “secular” are not truly worldly in the sense of being as deeply in touch with the movements of the cosmos as the “religious” whose life supposedly separates them from “the world” but which, through the round of ordered prayer, actually reflects the intricate gears of that cosmos in miniature. The “secular” have followed the course that Puritan Richard Baxter described, so caught up with scholarship, didacticism, or activism that they have lost the simple gifts of contemplation. Prayer, especially formal prayer, has been minimized or postponed or deferred almost out of existence, evaporated in a cloud of unfulfilled “intentions” as these busy workers imagine themselves to be getting about the realwork of the church, the real work of God, as they see it.
I pray for you, brothers and sisters that you will not so seriously get hold of the wrong end of the stick. As Kenneth Leech wrote some years ago, far too many clergy spend too much time in the wrong kind of office! And believe me, it is tempting to do so, to defer the work of prayer because of the other work. But I can testify to you that about thirty years of saying the Daily Office has not seriously impaired my ability to get my other work done - perhaps because I see the Daily Office as part of my work, a part of my share in the whole work of God. The ordered prayer of the church is a large part of what the church is; it is the work of the church as much as it is the work of God, and I am enmeshed and geared into it as one cog in the great work of the church.
And I mean the whole church. For I do not embrace the idea that monks and friars, sisters and brothers, and clergy are simply the professionals who pray for those who don’t have the time — in spite of the fact that they sometimes end up doing so. And thank God someone does! We have it on good authority that ten righteous ones could once have saved a whole city from annihilation; and the rabbis still speak of God’s preservation of the whole world on account of the fifty whose prayers forfend its utter collapse into nothingness. So yes, the monks and nuns and friars and sisters and clergy do pray for others, but not so that they can be let off the hook of praying for themselves.
And let me note that clergy especially aren’t off the hook. The Church of England, at least, still expects its clergy to say the Daily Office. (How well this is observed is another matter, and I have no wish to make windows into clerical souls.) But I urge you to this, sisters and brothers. It is a part of our particular vocation as “parsons” — which is to say, “persons” of prayer who model the church — it is a part and parcel of our parsonal, our personal “work” of God, for God, and from God. Our work of prayer may indeed help to hold the prayer-free and carefree world together, as we lay down those daily fresh coats of prayer upon a spinning world.
However this vicarious benefit to the prayer-free may be one of the effects of our life of ordered prayer, I want to be quite clear that it is not its primary raison d’être. If I can use the analogy of the theology of marriage, this is a good of our daily prayer, but it is not its end. Its end is, in large part, your task as ordained persons: as priests to call together the community of the faithful, to make the church as its scattered members are recalled to unity in Christ — and as deacons to send them out into the world in the power of the Spirit: and you can feel the Spirit breathing as the church’s lungs inhale the congregation and then send it forth.
Some of our prayer is for others, passing sandbags down the line to stay the flood, but this is not the ideal for the church. But this is the minimum: for if the clergy do not pray, how can we expect it of our people? I can join with Moses and say, I wish that all of God’s peoplewere, committed to some form of daily prayer, even if it only takes the form of one office a day, a quickly uttered Lord’s Prayer on arising, or even a wordless pause to summon God to mind. But as for you about to be new-born clergy, I am afraid I espouse that rather old-fashioned idea that Kenneth Leech was defending: to follow the daily discipline of ordered prayer that goes by the name “the Work of God.” Thus joined with the laity the whole church can exercise responsibility and take up its share of the work of God, the whole church’s work of God.
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The ordered life of daily prayer is the heart and soul of the work of God, of our work, our liturgy that is both work for the people of God and the work of God, for without God inspiring the will and the deed, without God’s Holy Spirit filling and lifting our sails, our poor small boats would not be able to navigate the waters of creation.
God’s Spirit hovered over those waters at the beginning, setting up the ripples that would become time and space and all that is of matter and energy. Our ordered life of prayer reflects the movements of the cosmos, one voice taking up the song as another dies out, as those bands of dawn and dusk and midday and midnight sweep around the earth.
But the daily work of prayer does not only reflect the cycles of the cosmos. There is a greater mystery still: that the work of prayer reinforces those ripples of the Spirit to such an extent that prayer will one day fill the created universe. The vision of the Psalmist was of mountains skipping likerams, and hills like young sheep, of the sun and moon and stars telling of the glory of God, and of every creature with breath in its mouth raising its voice to praise the Lord. And we are, pace Galileo and Copernicus, at the middle of it all, we on this blue marble on which God chose to be incarnate, scandalously particular in our smallness, lowly handmaids graced by that visitation and exalted from our humble place on the outer arm of the Milky Way, and given an awesome task. This is the work of God, God’s work in us and our work for God with God’s people.
As poet John Ellerton wrote:
We thank thee that thy Church, unsleepingThis prayer, this daily prayer, ordered and repeating and mirroring the rhythms of God’s good world, of God’s great universe, is the work of God and our work, too. It’s what we do.
while earth rolls onward into light,
through all the world her watch is keeping
and rests not now by day or night.
As o’er each continent and island
the dawn leads on another day,
the voice of prayer is never silent,
nor dies the strain of praise away. (Hymn 24)
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Nearer than They Appear
I spoke this morning a bit about the Daily Office, and this afternoon I want to focus on the Eucharist. But first, I’d like to put my comments into the context of Scripture, and so we have two readings I’d like us to hear and reflect upon. (Read Ephesians 2:13-22, Mark 6:32-43).
I have to begin with a confession that I made to Canon Coles when she first asked me to join you for this time apart: that I have come to middle age — and a good bit past it — never having learned how to drive. Circumstances just never quite seemed to require it, and it has given me both a great love for long walks and a ready familiarity with the public transportation systems of many a great metropolis. A more down to earth consequence is that when I am in a car, I get to sit in the passenger seat fairly often, and so am quite familiar with the passenger side rear-view mirror. This mirror shows a wide-angle distorted view of what’s coming up behind. And printed right on the mirror is the warning: “Objects are nearer than they appear.”
Whether you hear this as good news or not will depend on what the objects are. If it’s a car pulling out of a parking place after you’ve circled the block for the twelfth time, you’re likely to rejoice. But what if what you see in the mirror is red and flashing? “Objects are nearer than they appear” — and what’s near is not always dear.
The words of Paul to the Ephesians look towards a joyful kind of nearness: the joy of the outcasts and foreigners, those far off, being brought in and let in — to discover the rules have changed, and the door that was shut for so long is now open and welcoming. What a joy and honor to be gathered thus into the covenant, to be built into a holy temple — can you imagine how it must have felt to the Gentiles to whom Paul wrote,
to hear those words, words of welcome and incorporation? The Gentiles were not allowed near the Temple in Jerusalem, only as far as the outer court, the court that in those days was still trammeled and crowded with the traders and money-changers Jesus was only for a few days able to cast out. Crowded in that space, those who wanted to draw nearer to the presence of God were stopped in their tracks by the big signs that said, “No Gentiles Need Apply” in Greek and Latin letters.
But Paul assures them that the rules have changed since Christ has come, and not only are they allowed in, but — wonder of wonders — they are to become the temple, God’s spiritual dwelling place.
It’s very easy to hear such a passage and imagine ourselves to be the ones restored or welcomed, the have-nots who finally make it, the ones who never got picked for the team being made captain, the ugly ducklings turning out to be swans. No doubt as you come to the end of the ordination “process” you are feeling no small amount of such relief yourself — as you come to embrace that to which you have felt so long called: diaconate is in sight, and then — God, the bishop and the people willing — the priesthood before the year is over. You will have come to where you hoped for so long to be. So yes, it’s easy to read these texts as happy-ending fairy tales about us.
But do we have the right to read them in this way? Or is this reading as distorted as the view in a rear-view mirror? Are we the exiles and the outcasts? Sometimes, you know, exile and exclusion are not so obvious as a sign in big letters saying, “You’re Kind Not Wanted Here.” Sometimes the ways for keeping the far away far away, or allowing them no nearer than a barge-pole, are so ingrained that they aren’t even noticed. They are just the way things are.
And I want to share these thoughts with you today because the parish can be — if we are not on our toes — a place not of welcome, but of paradoxical exclusion, a place for an in-crowd, if we as leaders cast ourselves too much as the benevolent host rather than as one of the guests. Remember how Jesus responded to the disciples who wanted places of special honor: “the kings of the Gentiles rule over them as benefactors — but with you it shall not be so. Rather, you shall be servants of one another.” You are about to become deacons — if only “only” deacons for a season. So I want to share with you something of what it means to be a “servant at the table” — for the servant’s lot is our lot throughout our ministry, and not just for the next six months!
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I do this in the context of the WLIW Friday night Britcoms. A few years back they ran a comedy series called “You Rang, M’Lord,” set in a well-to-do English household in the 1920s, with the household servants as the principle characters. It’s a kind of dystopian mirror-image of “Upstairs Downstairs” — and rather than the characters being charming and good-hearted, here they are all “pieces of work.”
The class system dominates and defines everyone in the house from the Lord of the manor to the boot-boy, in a hierarchy as rigid as a Byzantine court’s. The pivotal character is the butler — a hypocritical thief who bows and scrapes to the master — but when safely below stairs spouts the venom of his anger freely, the catchphrases of fine vintage Red activism seeming a bit incongruous as he promises: “We’ll see what it’s like come the Revolution, when the tables are turned and we’re on top and they’re down here!”
But class-consciousness works both ways: even in the supposed land of proletarian equality and comradeship below stairs. It is revealed in how the live-in servants treat the “day woman.” She’s the “low woman on the totem pole” — the one who does all the dirtiest and meanest jobs. When she heads out after a 16 hour day, on her weary way home, the live-in servants are gulping down their sumptuous dinner, (with bottles of wine from the master’s cellar that the butler has “opened by mistake — and we can’t let it go to waste, can we!”). The poor day-woman looks at the groaning board and the overfed staff stuffing themselves, licks her lips, and says with a pitiful sigh, “I can’t tell you ‘ow long it’s been since I had a nice bit of roast beef...”
The cook, who appears to be more than ordinarily well fed, says, offhandedly, “Oh, I’ve left you some week-old cheese in the pantry. It’ll be perfectly fine if you scrape off the green crust.” And the little woman mutters, “Oh, thanks” and scuttles off to retrieve the morsel of green cheese.
When the youngest maid-servant finally gets the pluck to say, “Oh, surely we could spare a bit of this beef,” the other servants look at her as if she has just pronounced the gravest heresy, and the cook solemnly pronounces the classic judgment— how many times in how many places and ways has this been said — “She needs to know her place.”
Yes, she needs to know her place. And her place is there, not here. We need to stake out our space, our turf, and not give in to the temptation to change the rules. Objects are nearer than they appear; you can’t be too careful. We want to keep them just as far away as we can — thank you very much.
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Them. There’s a lot of power in that word. Them. It’s the opposite of “us.” We are us; they are, well, them.
You know them. That sort. Those foreigners. They eat that strange food. I mean, it just smells up the whole building. And why can’t they learn our language if they want to come to our country? And those clothes. I don’t see how they can expect to find a job if they dress like that. Maybe that’s why so many of them are out of work.
And why should we be held responsible for them? It’s not our fault they’re here. We didn’t ask them to come here. In fact, we were trying to get away from them. They must have followed us. We’re not responsible. Look, here we are out in the middle of nowhere, out in the wilderness where we thought we could have some quality time with you and now you expect us to find them something to eat!?
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Oh my. Jesus has that look again. We’ve seen it before — that little tilt of the head with a furrow in the brow and a puckered smile — and that piercing look. And then he orders us to get all of them to sit down. And he takes what little we have — it isn’t much, is it? Hardly enough even for us, let alone for them. But he takes it, and he looks up to heaven and says a blessing of thanksgiving — I mean, thanks for what? A few loaves and fishes? — and then he hands it back to us, and all of a sudden it looks like there’s more of it than we thought there was.
He hands it over and tells us to serve them, to wait on them. Good deacons all of us, servants commissioned and commanded to wait on them. On them, you understand. Them.
The day-woman and the scullery-maid, — the migrant worker, — the latina with her noisy children, — the old man in the threadbare T-shirt with the frost of white on his elbows, — the widow who’s been living on cat-food in her cold drab room, — the hooker in spiked heels and a top so low that nothing is left to the imagination, — the toothless farmhand in overalls with a three-day scraggle of beard, — the soldier who lost his legs in someone else’s war, — the angry man who mutters as if haunted by himself, — the fifteen-year-old hustler with eyes three times his age, and the crowds and crowds of others, all the others, all of them who have been on the outside, out far away, suddenly and so uncomfortably near, neatly arranged in squares of fifty and a hundred, gathered on a hillside, having a picnic while we wait on them, doling out bread and fish we never knew there was so much of — so much embarrassing abundance where we thought there was so little, so much for so many when we thought there wasn’t even enough for us.
As we pass among them handing out the bread and fish, we find it hard to look into their eyes, and focus on their hands instead. Those hands are heavy with calluses, with dirt under the nails, or with impossibly long nails bright with polish and glitter, others are gnawed and broken.
And as we pass, their voices say, “Thank you… thank you…” voices soft and humble, even the man who mutters at his ghosts somehow calmed and comforted in this bread. It’s like running a gauntlet — passing out that bread — running a gauntlet of thanksgiving. We are washed again and again with waves and waves of gratitude tous for something we didn’t know we could do, something we never even thought of doing, were it not for his blessing and command. This wasn’t our idea, and we have no right to be thanked. And yet the thanks keep coming, as we pass among the lifted hands and bowed heads.
And when the meal is ended, when the crowds have eaten their fill, and been dismissed, Jesus finally lets us collect the leftovers strewn about the hillside for our own dinner — and there’s plenty left: a basketful for each of us. And we sit in silence and we eat in silence, eyes lowered to the baskets on our laps, not one of us looking up, — not at each other, certainly not at him.
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And slowly, it begins to dawn on us what has happened. We had always thought that we were the ones at the center, that we were the ones who were near, while they, them, all the others, were far off. But we had it backwards. All this while we’ve been living in a rear-view mirror world that made things appear further away and further apart than they really are. We lived in a rear-view mirror world until Jesus came and turned the tables on us, until Jesus turned us around and showed us just how close all our brothers and sisters are to us, and we to them — and what a family we find ourselves to be part of!
And he did it by feeding us the leftovers. We who were the ones who always ate first, who sat at table and were waited on, and who thought thereby that we were blessed — we have just eaten last, after serving and waiting on them. And all of us and all of them have eaten of the same food, the same bread. And because of that service and because of that bread, there isn’t any us or them anymore. We have become them, by serving them; they have become us by being served by us; and all who were far off have been brought near through the blood of the one who shed it for all, and all are made one in the flesh of the one who gave himself for the love of all, in the bread once scattered on the hillside now made one. We’ve passed through the looking glass, finally, into the real world, God’s world, the world God loved, the world God purchased. We were exiles and strangers all along, and didn’t even know it. But we finally have been brought home, and attained full citizenship in the country where there are no dividing walls, no signs that say who’s in, who’s out, who’s near, who’s far. And we slowly look up from the baskets on our laps, and we look at each other. And when we finally get up the courage, somewhat sheepishly to look at Jesus, where he sits to one side on the fresh green grass in patient silence, we see that he is smiling. And he is just as near as he appears to be.
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