Orient Point

8/8/10
Luke 12:32-40

This past Wednesday my wife and I had dinner at The Dock and Dine on Saybrook Point, where we are vacationing. We’ve eaten there for over fifty years and enjoy the view, which it offers of the Connecticut River. Old Saybrook is situated right at the mouth of the river, where it meets Long Island Sound. The mouth of the river is one of the few entrances into a major river in the United States that has not been developed into a commercial port. The reason for this exception is that there are strong rip tide currents, which make it treacherous for ships to enter the river.

Back in the late nineteen forties and early fifties my father-in-law, Charlie, and his friend Benny would go fishing in the Sound for Blues. They would get tanked up and then try to force their way up the river to Essex or Deep River. Often there were storms like those in thirty-eight and fifty-five. To get into the river from the Sound you had to take your orientation from two lighthouses near Saybrook Point. Lacking imagination, the local residents referred to the two lighthouses as “The Inner Lighthouse” and the “Outer Lighthouse.” Through the fog of exhaustion, foolhardiness and alcohol Benny and Charlie would take their orientation and lurch up the river toward home. My wife is still terrified by the memories of trying to make it up the river – the boat driven by Charlie and Benny passed out in the back.

Last Thursday Faye and I went over to Guilford to have dinner with friends. We arrived early and went down to the beach, where we parked and watched a man in a dingy trying to reach his home on one of the Thimble Islands in the Sound. The wind was high and the waters turbulent. He was taking his orientation from the landmarks on the shore and plowing into and away from the white-capped waves. Although at times it appeared that he would be swamped, he had a desirable goal and faith that its worth and meaning were sufficient to persevere in his voyage home. Eventually he made it.

Now those of you who are familiar with my homilies know that I like to move from narrative to metaphor to theology. It is easy to see the waters of the sound and the river as representing the ebb and flow of turbulent times, both personal and in society. So also you and I frequently head into the winds of fortune, which push us around and arise and diminish unpredictably. We recognize the importance of having a point from which we take our orientation, a goal in which we have faith in its desirability and worth, and a sense of final reward that is more than the satisfaction of material goods and the recognition of power and place. We naturally look for a good wind, calm seas, a clear orient point and a sense of true home. Foolish is the one who does not have somewhere worth going, who does not study the navigational maps and who romanticizes everything, goes with the flow and ends up flotsam and jetsam, detritus on the beach, having been a peril to himself and to others.

We can identify with these kinds of thoughts and metaphors partly because of the influence of the Greek and Latin classics like the Iliad, the Aeneid and the Odyssey in our culture, but more so, I think, because of our Judeo Christian heritage. We’ve heard stories like these before. We have learned to think metaphorically and to see our lives as sheep herded by a good shepherd, (note the image of sheep in the Old Testament reading and in that from Hebrews), the wandering Jews from Egypt to the Promised Land, or the futility of those who seek only earthly goods and rewards for themselves.

Last week in the reading from the Gospel According to St. Luke, Jesus, making an observation from the Wisdom Literature tradition, tells us that “one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.” In this week’s passage from Luke Jesus continues to warn against improper use of wealth and possessions and exhorts his followers to prepare by diligence and faithfulness for the coming of the Son of Man and participation in the Kingdom of God. The disciples are to have a sense of what is to come. This sense is elaborated upon in Paul’s words in Hebrews about faith.

The Kingdom of God is seen as unfolding in the here and now and also awaiting us in heaven. So too the coming of the Son of man refers to the end of time when God’s work of salvation is completed and to the coming of the presence of the Master through the Holy Spirit, and to when we meet God at the time of our earthly death.

Now this is rather thick stuff and there is a liturgical component to it. The parable of the waiting servants parallels that of the paschal feast in Exodus 12:11, where those preparing it girded up their loins. That is to say they pulled up the skirts of their garments and tied them like Sophia Loren and Anna Magnani did in their early Italian films. I doubt, however, that the rabbis and priests looked quite so fetching. I hasten to add as an aside that without the reference to Exodus most of us have little idea what girding up one’s loins means. In fact, when I was in seminary, one poor soul mispronounced this as Jesus commanding us to girdle your lions. Humor, or attempts at it, aside, for the early church there was an expectation that Christ would return at midnight at Passover. This lead into the celebration of an agape Eucharist in which Jesus is present in the bread and wine in advance of His coming at the end of time.
Now what are the assumptions behind all of this? Basic to Judeo-Christian thought is that all is not vanity – history is understood as being linear and going somewhere. It is not circular or random. Secondly, God controls history and is working out His will in it. God is working out salvation history. You and I live in the midst of the working out of our salvation by God. That was true for Abraham, for Paul, for the disciples and for the apostles. Thirdly, faith is the recognition that God is in charge and that our ultimate outcome is a closer life with Him and participation in the Kingdom of Heaven.

What this says for you and me is that our lives are journeys, separately and corporately. At each stage of our life we have to have orientation points. Those orientation points are what God has done in the past, as seen in the scriptures, what God has done in the past as seen in the life of the Church, and what God has done in our own lives, as seen in our blessings and challenges. Perhaps the most important orientation point is where we find “home.” Like the guy in the dingy heading out to his home on a Thimble Island do you see “going home” as a determining factor in how you make your decisions and live your life? Do you see being close to God through your values, your decisions, your priorities and your wants as an essential orient point in your faith journey? Do you see being close to God when you die, i.e. going to heaven, as something not to be scolded about but as something you would really like to have – at the final end, a “peace that passeth understanding”? To navigate troubled waters, have you prayed, do you pray, do you give alms, do you venerate and receive the sacraments, or do you trust to luck that you’ll make out all right and that God will give you a break?

Our parish has been through a long journey and process. The sale of our property has been finalized. Like Abraham, it took a long time to get things going. Like the passages Paul’s Epistle to the Hebrews, faith has been a sustaining ingredient. Like the passages from the Gospel of Luke, which were read last Sunday and today, we are exhorted not to be blinded by our material possessions, but rather are challenged to use them for the propagation of the Gospel: that is to celebrate the sacraments, proclaim the word, to help the needy, to save the young and to bless the Lord.

Our parish has been through rough seas, has tried to orient itself through the markers and lighthouses, the beacons of inspiration, vision and dedication. As the hymn says, Jesus assures us,

“When through the deep waters I call thee to go, the rivers of woe shall not thee overflow; for I will be with thee, thy troubles to bless, and sanctify to thee thy deepest distress…. The soul that to Jesus hath fled for repose, I will not, I will not desert to its foes; that soul though all hell shall endeavor to shake, I’ll never, no never, no, never forsake.” (1)

You and I are called and exhorted to seek to bring all of us, individually and collectively, to our heavenly home, both here and at the at the end of time. At the end of our own lives by the mercy of God and by the grace of Jesus Christ, may we be able to say, rejoicing, “Halleluiah, we have come home.” – Amen. –Fr. Gage-

(1) Hymnal of the Episcopal Church 1982 Hymn 637. Lyons. –K. in John Rippon’s Selection 1787.