Epiphany 3 Year B
Recently, I went to lunch with a friend and former co-worker, named JR. I let him select the place. “Let’s meet at noon at Old Chen’s,” he said. The place he was referring to was Dim Sum Villa, in New Providence. It’s been Dim Sum Villa since 2013. But most of us probably recall that, before it was Dim Sum Villa, it was, for many years, Chen’s Chinese Restaurant. And for JR, now four years out, it is still “the place that used to be Chen’s”. And I knew instantly where he was talking about.
What relatively few of us here today will recall is that, before it was Chen’s, before the Davis family settled in New Providence, before Bill Clinton was first sworn in as our president, before anyone in this congregation who is college age or younger was even born, before any of that, the place that used to be Chen’s was a Burger King.
And when we first moved here from Chicago, Betsy and I took our then toddler kids to that Burger King. I was carrying my little girl. She was sitting [motioning] right here on my forearm, with her tiny arm draped on my shoulder. And something apparently showed on my face. “What’ya thinking, Daddy?” she says. And I say, “I was thinking about how nice it is to hold you like this. And, about how fast you kids grow up, and how, soon, I’m not going to be able to carry you like this anymore. And then you’re going to get to be a teenager, and maybe you’ll go through some phase where you think your parents are an embarrassment, and maybe then you won’t even want to hug me in front of your friends.” “Oh, Daddy,” she says, “I’ll hug you every time.”
Those words – “Daddy, I’ll hug you every time,” –with all their child-like quirkiness, stuck with us through the years as a special father-daughter bond. And, during her teenage years, we had the typical spats and skirmishes that parents have with their adolescent children, but I knew that I could always say “But you said you’d hug me every time,” and she always would. To this day, I get the occasional Father’s Day or birthday card with the sign-off, “Daddy, I’ll hug you every time.” The words stuck with us through the years.
Through the years, I also kept hearing about this thing called “Living in the Present Moment.” At first, it was wisdom from the East, a Buddhist practice on the path to enlightenment. It is a state, also referred to as “mindfulness”, of active intentional attention focused on what one is doing right now. I then saw it co-opted wholesale in the secular realm. The secular practice does not differ much from the Buddhist, but the objective seems different: not enlightenment, but health benefits like lower blood pressure, stress management and headache relief, and, especially, increased productivity and improved performance at work. It seemed to be everywhere I looked – a cover story in Time, a lead story in Psychology Today, a briefing page in The Week, mindfulness articles in Reader’s Digest, the New York Times Magazine, the Star Ledger, Parade Magazine, and the subject of one of The Great Courses lecture series that you can buy on CD or DVD. A flier at the Madison Y advertised courses in Mindfulness for 4th to 6th Graders, promising that it would help kids improve academic and social skills. The Seattle Seahawks’ 2014 Super Bowl victory was attributed in part to the mindfulness training Coach Carroll arranged for his players to get.
And, I then learned that living in the present moment is also a Christian discipline since at least the 6th Century. Several parishioners here, including me, participate in a Benedictine study group at Calvary Summit led by The Rev. Jane Tomaine. One of the books we read was Jane’s book St. Benedict’s Toolbox, in which she shows the ways in which the practice of living in the present moment is critical to the Benedictine vows of stability, obedience and conversion of life and is embedded in diverse elements of Benedictine teachings such as those on hospitality and the sacredness of labor. In the book, Jane defines living in the present moment as “being attentive to what is happening now without being distracted by past regrets or future anxieties.”
And I thought back to that time at Burger King, and had to conclude, initially at least, that, by that definition, I wasn’t then living in the present moment, because rather than remaining focused solely on my daughter in my arms in the present moment, I was thinking also of future times that would be different. Still, it wasn’t anything that I could regret. Your experiences of course may be different, but in my experience, it hardly ever happens – hardly ever – that a trip to Burger King becomes a moment I treasure for the rest of my life. So, when it does, I have to celebrate that. And, on further reflection, I sensed what may be a relevant distinction.
For each passing moment we experience, it seems to me that there are at least three, and maybe only three, choices. We can savor it. We can spoil it. Or we can just plain miss it. And one way we can spoil or miss our present moments is by turning our attention away from the present and onto other times, past and future, good and bad. We can, for example, spoil our present moments by diminishing them in unfavorable comparison to past times that we recall as having been better or to future times that we expect will be. In the process, we don’t savor the one we have. And we can miss fully experiencing our present moments by obsessing instead on resentments over past wrongs, or regrets for past mistakes and failures, or worries about what we fear might happen tomorrow or the next day. Yes, attention we put on other times, past or future, good or bad, can keep us from savoring our present moments. But I don’t believe it is so bad to consider other moments when doing so helps us realize how special the present moment is, how we cannot count on it being the same tomorrow and how lucky we are to have the present moment now, before it is forever gone.
I also believe that today’s Gospel reading points to an important distinction between living in the moment as Christians and in other contexts.
In the reading, Jesus arrives in the Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God. As he passes the Sea of Galilee, he calls out to Simon and his brother Andrew, who are fishing, saying “Follow me,” and they immediately do. Shortly thereafter, he sees James and his brother John mending their nets, and calls out to them to follow him, and they also do, just like that.
That they do so is by any measure remarkable, but perhaps a bit less so when seen in the context of the educational system in first century Judaism. Beginning at age 6, children, both boys and girls, went to their local synagogue five days a week for what was called Bet Sefer (SAY-fer), where they’d study the Torah, the first five books of the Bible. This continued until they were about 12, and for most children, their formal education ended there. Some of the boys, however, the very best students of the Torah, could continue for another few years of what was called Bet Midrash, during which they studied, seeking even to memorize, the entire Old Testament. Most of those who finished Bet Midrash then simply went back to work in the family business like the rest. But the family of a truly exceptional student, from this already select group, might ask the Rabbi to accept their son to continue as one of his followers, for what was called Bet Talmud. This would be like getting accepted at Harvard or Stanford. If the Rabbi agreed, he would say “Lek hackeri,” meaning “Come, follow me.” The young man, now as one of the Rabbi’s followers, his Talmudim, would spend the next many years quite literally following him wherever he went, learning his ways, learning to think like him, to eat like him, to be like him, and, eventually, at age 30, becoming a Rabbi himself.
And there we find Simon and Andrew, and James and John, who probably at best had completed the first stage, Bet Sefer, now working the nets as fishermen. Jesus was in the Galilee proclaiming the good news of God, speaking with great authority, as if he were a Rabbi. And this rabbinical character calls out to these fishermen to follow him, in essence to be his Talmudim. Opportunities like that were rare, and these were guys who, keep in mind, first time around, did not make the cut But, now, conveying by his words and actions what he was later to remind them of expressly, “You did not choose me, but I chose you,” Jesus calls them to be his Talmudim. “Follow me,” he says, and they do.
Two things made this possible: first, that they heard his call and, second, that they responded to it in the moment. They heard his call, and responded to it in the moment – the critical starting point, of course, being that they heard his call.
Some experienced mindfulness practitioners report achieving a state of such absorption in their present task that they lose track of everything else around them, a state called getting in “the zone” or “flow”. Their focus on what they are doing in the present moment is so intense that they become unaware of the passage of time, and know only the task at hand. Some athletes experience this. Many Silicon Valley software engineers also report “being in the zone” when they immerse themselves in writing highly complex code. This is by and large a good thing. Indeed, it is probably only by being in this state of hyper-focus that mountaineers are able to scale the sheer face of outcroppings like El Capitan at Yosemite without plunging to their deaths.
But what if James and John had tried this? What if they had showed up for work that day, announced that they were going to focus on mending their nets like no one had focused on mending nets before, and, saying “No interruptions!” headed to the middle of the Sea of Galilee where they could get into the zone with their nets? Then they probably would have done some great net-mending, but they would not have heard Jesus’s call. They would have missed the boat that Jesus was calling them to board, and instead spent the rest of their working lives on the boat they were already on.
And that is, to me, the key distinction between living in the present moment as Christians and in the secular realm. In the later, mindfulness is practiced in order to improve performance, to complete one’s tasks better or faster, to achieve some goal, but in any event, it is about carrying out one’s own agenda. Benedict has a different purpose in mind. It was to make ourselves aware of God’s presence, and, with that, to discern what God is calling us to do. Writing in the American Benedictine Review, Brian Pierce put it this way: “The present moment is the most important moment for the simple fact that it is in this moment that we are invited to touch the presence of God.” Benedict wanted us to remember that God is present always, even in the midst of the most mundane. In St. Benedict’s Toolbox, Jane Tomaine wrote “Looking for the sacred in the ordinary is about being in present moment. … As we do the tasks of the day, we can do them knowing that God is present with us.” Cistercian Abbess Mother Gail Fitzpatrick adds: “God is in the saucepan as well as the chalice, the lawn mower as well as the monstrance. The manner is ordinary, but God’s glory is in every event, every moment, every particle of creation.”
Our awareness of God’s presence is what makes it possible for us to hear his call. It may be that, like the first disciples, we will hear a call to something life-changing for us, and, maybe even for the world. But we shouldn’t count on that. What we can count on, though, is that, no matter what else we might be getting called to, at a minimum -- at a minimum -- we are called in each present moment to thankfulness. The awareness that God is here in the midst of all that we do each moment gives us reason to savor these moments, and not spoil or miss them. We can be thankful for every experience, for even difficult experiences are opportunities for us to learn something.
Speaking for myself, it is unrealistic to expect that we can be fully present to and consciously thankful for every single moment and totally avoid ever shifting into auto-pilot. But we can savor our present moments more than we typically do. Whether we are peeling carrots, folding laundry, sitting in a boring meeting or stuck in a traffic jam, or any of the other things we do each day, we can always take a moment to remind ourselves that these are all gifts from God, and, whether silently or aloud say “Thank you Jesus for this moment.” And if we do that, you know what I think will happen? Here’s what: I think he’ll hug us every time.
 Mother Gail Fitzpatrick, OSCO, Seasons of Grace, p.129.