September 10, 2023

Proper 18 – Bill Harkins

Good morning and welcome to each of you! Grace to you and peace on this 15th Sunday in Pentecost. The texts given to us today can be challenging in a number of ways. If we understand sin as somehow “missing the mark” in relation to one another—a definition based on a Greek archery term—then we quickly understand that we are all in need of grace, because no one among us is perfect. We all miss the mark at times. The Good News is that we hear in this text an invitation: right now, as we are, we can do the good, hard, messy work of looking at ourselves as members of the Body of Christ, and this includes people who are every bit as difficult as we are. Any good 12-step program has a variation on a theme of acknowledging that, often, the things that most bother us about other people—the ways others “miss the mark” can be the very things we don’t like about ourselves; those things, that is, that most need our attention in the form of what Carl Jung called “shadow work.” And the ultimate goal of wrestling with these things is reconciliation—with our own shadow selves, and with one another and the world. As Christians, we believe that Christ is reconciling us to God and to one another… an outward and visible sign of a grace. Even church conflict can be an opportunity to practice reconciliation; it can be sacramental. Christian community — all community, really — is, as St. Benedict said, a “school for souls” in which we learn not just how to live, but also how to experience abundant life. Jesus knew that we understand best and deepest how God loves and forgives when we are, in our limited but growing way, extending that love and forgiveness to others—and to ourselves.   

As both a priest and a clinician, I believe that as long as we need everybody to be happy and agreeable, we’ll always be anxious because we are trying to control what we cannot control. Recently, I was talking with two priest colleagues, one of whom got her doctorate in American Literature prior to going to seminary. The other colleague asked the English scholar if she knew much about Shakespeare, to which the former professor replied, “Not as much as he knows about me.” This resonated deeply with me, and I found myself being thankful for two wise and witty colleagues, and remembering my own relationship to King Lear, my favorite of Shakespeare’s plays. It is a play about fathers, and daughters, and sons, of course, and about the vicissitudes and finitude of human nature. It is a tragedy, yes, a cautionary tale, but it contains much wisdom about life in families, and about kindness, despair, control, compassion, and redemption. It is also a play about missing the mark, and becoming reconciled by forgiveness.   

My favorite part of King Lear is actually a subplot in which the aging Earl of Gloucester is, as the wonderful author Wendell Berry puts it, “recalled from his despair so that he may die in his full humanity.” As Berry reminds us the old Earl has been blinded in retribution for his loyalty to King Lear. And, like Lear, he is guilty of what my erstwhile colleague Walter Brueggeman called an operational theology of scarcity: he lives as if life is predictable, ultimately knowable, and within his control. He is, in short, in despair—and he is unable or unwilling to become reconciled to the ways he has missed the mark. Although I am a pastoral psychotherapist, and the term “theology of scarcity” is not in any diagnostic manual of which I’m aware, I see this all the time in my work. And I have seen it in myself. Moreover, despite his many admirable qualities, the Earl of Gloucester lives as if there is not enough grace to go around, and as such, the prevailing paradigm is that his life is primarily informed by that in relation to which he is afraid. Gloucester is asking the wrong questions until it is almost too late, and then, he encounters the right teacher. The results are predictable. He has falsely accused and alienated his loyal and loving son Edgar. Exiled and sentenced to death, Edgar dresses as a drifter and, thus disguised to his father, he becomes in fact his father’s guide—his father’s teacher. Gloucester asks to be lead to the cliffs of Dover, where in his despair he intends to throw himself onto the rocks below. Edgar’s self-appointed task, Wendell Berry tells us, is to save his father from despair, and he succeeds, for Gloucester dies eventually as Shakespeare puts it, “Twixt two extremes of passion, joy and grief…” (v. iii, 199). He dies, that is, within the appropriate boundaries of human living, as God intends.   

This is a cautionary tale and teachable moment not only for priests, and pastoral counselors and family therapists—the family systems dynamics in Lear are fascinating—but for us all. It is a journey less Odyssean than Abrahamic, because the final destination is uncertain. Odysseus longed only to return to Ithaca, and Penelope, and all that he knew, while Sarah and Abraham left on a journey whose ultimate destination was, and remains, unknown. As such, King Lear is fundamentally a story about transformation, and choices, and grace. Edgar does not want his father to give up on life. To do so is, as Wendell Berry puts it, “to pass beyond the possibility of change or redemption.”   

And so Edgar does not lead his father to the edge of the cliff, but rather only tells him he has done so. Gloucester renounces the world, blesses his ostensibly absent son, and as Shakespeare directs, “falls forward and swoons.” Upon regaining consciousness Gloucester is led by his son to believe that he has survived the fall. Pretending to be a passer-by who has seen Gloucester’s tumble, Edgar assumes the remarkable and life-giving role of a spiritual guide to his father. In an exchange that will be familiar to many who have tried to help family members in trouble, Gloucester, dismayed to find himself still alive, attempts to refuse help: “Away, and let me die” (IV, vi, 48). And after several lines in which he attempts to persuade his father that he is a stranger, Edgar says to his father what are for me the most significant lines of the play: “Thy life’s a miracle. Speak yet again.” (IV, vi., 55). In so doing, Edgar calls his father back from despair and “into the properly subordinated human life of grief and joy, where change and redemption are possible.” Gloucester is transformed in the process by becoming reconciled to himself, and to the world.   

Well, as the father of two sons, I have many memories in relation to which I identify with Gloucester—memories, that is, of my sons becoming father to the man. And there have been other young teachers as well, who called me back to life when in my hubris and fear—my operational theology of scarcity—I neglected to ask for God’s love and grace and mercy, and I missed the mark.   

Many years ago, between stints at Vanderbilt University, I spent a year at Atlanta’s Egleston Children’s Hospital, as a chaplain intern. Vicky and I were young, poor graduate students, and we had two very young sons. Truth told most days at the hospital were terrifying for me. The hospital treated the sickest children from several states around, and I struggled to maintain my fragile objectivity while visiting the children and their worried parents. At night, as I read to my sons and held them close to me, I worried over every sniffle and cough. I imagined the worst that could happen because I saw examples of it every day. In my fear, I became more and more isolated, and a part of me shut down and went away.   

One beautiful Easter Sunday morning, late in my internship, I was assigned to the Children’s Chapel. In my arrogance, borne of fear, I told myself that I had more important things to do, and better places to be, and that I had earned the right to be home with my family. I wanted to be anywhere but at that hospital. And yet, there I was, in the makeshift playroom that doubled as the Chapel on Sundays, surrounded by toys, and art supplies, and bereft of children save one, lone soul in a wheelchair, patiently waiting for the chaplain to arrive. His name was Walter, and he was from Homerville, Georgia. He was 9 years old, wearing glasses with lenses the thickness of a coke bottle, and his kidneys were failing. He desperately needed a transplant. His mother introduced him, and he reached out his hand to shake mine, and no doubt needing some blessed time alone, his mother departed for the cafeteria, entrusting her son to my care. In an off-handed, even careless way, I suggested that we draw together. He seemed excited by this, and said, “Will you draw the animals from Noah’s Ark?” I agreed, and we sat together, juice and cookies our Easter morning Eucharist, me awkwardly drawing animals from the ark in a disinterested way, Walter smiling, and nodding approvingly, enthusiastically suggesting new animals in turn. All the while the Easter sun rose over the azaleas and dogwoods blooming in the courtyard outside and there I was, wishing to be somewhere else, even as I congratulated myself on my art therapy as pastoral care. I was not fully present—not paying attention—not fully alive in that moment…missing the mark by a long shot.   

When Walter’s mother returned I arrogantly assured her that we had been having a marvelous time. “We’ve been drawing,” I said, delighted with my pastoral art therapy on the fly. “Drawing?” she asked. “Walter can’t draw, chaplain. He lost his sight a year ago because of his illness. Walter is blind.” Well, there it was; my own isolation and self-importance exposed, Walter serving as my own version of Edgar, Gloucester’s son, and me, lost to his reality. I sat there in my shame and embarrassment, and in the silence, Walter’s small hand groped for a crayon on the table, picked it up, and held it out to me, smiling, while his other hand clasped hard around mine, wanting me to announce having drawn one more animal. Because, you see, it was not the pictures that mattered. After all, he could not see them. What mattered was relationship. He had forgiven me a long time ago. Like Gloucester, I was presuming to exhaustively “know” the world prior to examining all the options—prior to paying attention to the richness of possibilities that might be life-giving— this also blinded me to other realities. I had relegated Walter to the status of the “other.” Indeed I, like Gloucester, was blind, in despair, isolated and alone, and I had engaged in the hubris of presuming to “know” when in fact I did not. Walter had other ideas. He did not want me to stay isolated, cut-off, shut-down. “Thy life’s a miracle. Speak yet again.” Indeed. Our prayer, dear one’s, must be that we will have the grace to live fully and transparently into the mystery of the new lives we are already living. This is the Paschal Mystery of each moment of our lives.   

Near the end of the play, King Lear derisively asks Gloucester how a blind man can “see how this world goes.” “I see it feelingly,” he replies in his restored humanity and community. I rarely make a pastoral call, or sit with a patient, or teach a class, or advise a student, that I don’t think about Walter. He gently pushed me to do the good, harrowing shadow work that is still unfolding as we speak, right here, with all of you today.  

There is no bad reason to forgive one another, or ourselves. It puts us in touch with God’s reconciling grace. My friends, let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light, so that we might all join with the poet who said:  

When such as I cast out remorse

So great a sweetness flows into the breast

We must laugh and we must sing,

We are blest by everything,

Everything we look upon is blest.[1]


[1] William Butler Yeats, “Dialogue of Self and Soul,” The Collected Poems of William Butler Yeats, New York: Scribner (1983)