Rage, rage, against the dying of the light.
I crossed the new Tappan Zee bridge that spans the Hudson River 15 miles north of Manhattan. If they hadn’t replaced it, the old bridge would have fallen into the river, it’s steel exhausted and worn out. I thought of the hundreds of times that I have crossed that old bridge between Rockland and Westchester. I was shocked to discover that it had become obsolete in only 50 years. They had to build a new one, of course, and it is stronger, wider, designed for the time we live in and its changing modes of transportation, safely uniting us to one another across dangerous waters
My inaugural crossing on the new bridge was prompted by a visit to my mama, who lies beside my father in a grave on a hill overlooking the mighty river. Sometimes when I visit her up there I bring a book to the park-like grounds, and read a bit, my back against the stone. She was a voracious reader, always hungry to learn. This time I read Dylan Thomas’ famous poem that spoke to her strong will to beat the illness of her final days: “Do not go gentle into that good night. Rage, rage, against the dying of the light.” But rage as she did, my mother’s exhausted body finally gave out like the old Tappan Zee and a new bridge carried her to a life beyond all of our imaginations. The end of bridges, the end of lives.
There are times in your life when you see things coming to an end, those great crossroad moments: your parents pass on, you graduate from school, a love has been lost, a job has run its course--- and you wonder: What’s next? What should I do? In a moment of death, there is always the hope of new life.
Two years ago I was in such a moment, the end of my 20 year teaching gig at Fairfield University. I knew that I needed a new challenge, and in some ways a new life. I needed to listen for the answer, and the best way I could think of to do that was to go for a walk, for a long distance. I decided to follow the example of thousands of others, and walked almost 500 miles across Spain on the Camino de Santiago, the Way of St James. It is a route that pilgrims have traveled for hundreds of years, as they went in search of God’s voice, ending at the tomb of the apostle James. I walked 20 miles a day for a month, carrying only the barest of necessities on my back. It was truly an awesome experience. (So much so that I’m going to do it again next week—only 250 miles this time.) What made it so awesome was the way in which God spoke to me during those days—through so many little moments and seemingly insignificant encounters with everyone and everything.
It was not unlike the disciples in the Gospel. Each one of them were at their own crossroads, inspired to follow Jesus and his Word of love but not knowing exactly what that meant. So Jesus sends them out, two by two, with no money, no food, only the barest of necessities. I’m pretty sure that God spoke to them through many little and seemly insignificant encounters. In missioning them to go out in two-sies, Jesus was giving them a preview of what their lives would necessarily become after he was no longer around. This notion of being sent out by Jesus is actually at the heart of what it means to be Church. After Jesus rose from the dead, he encountered the two-sies again and gave them the Great Commission: “Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them everything I have commanded you.”
The actual definition of the word ‘disciple’ is ‘learner’, so to be a disciple of Jesus is to be engaged in a passionate life-long process of learning from and about the Master, who is Jesus, the teacher. To be honest, most of us good Catholics are not so hungry to be learners, and most of us are not so passionate about Jesus. Right? The truth is, most of our learning about Jesus stopped when we were in 8th grade. That is a problem for us, because if Jesus really is Lord, then we are missing out on a lot in our life. And it’s a big problem for the Church, because the primary role of a disciple is to be sent out to go make more disciples.
Ok, so let’s assume you are a believer and want to be a better disciple. And let me ask you, as I ask myself: when was the last time you tried to make anyone you know a disciple of Jesus?
If you are like me, you are passionate about a bunch of things, and you try to get your friends and relatives into them too. Lately I’ve been trying to get everyone to join MoviePass, I am a huge iPhone advocate, and I keep getting people to go to Posto for pizza. I haven’t been pushing Jesus on them so much.
I suspect that you are the same. And that is one of the reasons why this church is so empty, why so many of our family members and friends no longer accompany us here on Sundays. The truth is, we are largely to blame. If we are into something this good, shouldn’t we be telling everyone about it, urging them to come join us, be with us in our worship and praise of our Lord?
Listen, when I first got here last fall I took long walks very early in the morning in the neighborhood. I was blown away by all the homeless people that I saw sleeping sometimes in the middle of the sidewalk. And I noticed that our church didn’t seem to be doing any outreach to them. So I asked our pastor if we could raise some money for them, and we came up with the idea of selling dedicated Christmas trees that we would display on the plaza. And we had such a great demand for them that we had to buy more than originally planned. And we collected a lot of money that we are now using to fund our monthly sandwich-making and blessing bag distribution. But another benefit of the Christmas trees was that passersby were suddenly noticing that there was a church here at the corner of 22nd and 2nd. The lights on the trees drew their attention to our presence, and I know several people who decided to join our church after checking us out.
That’s when we realized that the plaza is an incredible asset for us, a space that could literally extend our faith out to the people on the sidewalks and the street. And on Ash Wednesday, at the end of a 3pm service here in the church to distribute ashes, I walked out to the plaza to talk to someone—still dressed in my priest vestments and still holding my bowl of ashes in one hand. Someone passing by on the sidewalk interrupted us and asked if I could give them ashes, and then another and another and another came up, and I was out there for 2 and ½ hours, with cars stopping on the avenue, putting on their flashers, and jumping out to get their foreheads ashed.
We knew we had to do something else with the plaza for Lent, so that’s when we put out the ribbons. And you know how amazing that was, thousands of prayer ribbons out there, and our church getting coverage on television and in the New York Times.
I've heard so many stories about the rich history of this parish, and its deep gift to the community in which we live. I've heard about the goodness that has come from so many people here. And despite the appearance that the Church is dying, I'm sure you agree that there is still a deep hunger in people’s souls for the incredible love of God the Father, Jesus the Son, and our Advocate, the Holy Spirit. The point is that we—all of us—need to re-commit ourselves to be sent out as passionate disciples to build new bridges to the Lord. The point is that this Church of the Epiphany can be much more than it is, we can be more than we are, we can and must become the face of Love and the Word of God to everyone we meet.
We are at a crossroads, my brothers and sisters. Not just in this church, but in every church. What’s next? What should we do? I deeply believe that if we listen, the Holy Spirit will show us the way in the coming months. We will not go gently into that good night. We will rage, rage against the dying of the light.