Friday, January 18, 2013

Remembering Bishop Dixon

The Rev. Luther Zeigler
A homily preached at St. Albans School for Boys, Washington, DC
1 Epiphany 2013

“Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the LORD has risen upon you.”
Isaiah 60:1

Thank you, Reverend Hundley, for that kind introduction and for inviting me here today to take part in this series of Epiphany chapels. This is a wonderful homecoming for me since it was here at St. Albans, exactly ten years ago, that I was first given the opportunity to explore what the life of a school chaplain might be like. At that time, I had been an appellate lawyer for two decades with a big law firm downtown, but I was at a point in my life when I was sensing a call to do something else with whatever meager talents I have. And that is when Mr. Wilson and Rev. Billow took a chance on me by inviting me to spend a year here teaching ethics and learning the art of school ministry at Rev. Billow’s feet. And it was in part because of the wonderful year that I spent here that I decided to give up my law practice for good to pursue ordination to the priesthood and, in particular, a vocation in academic ministry. Little did I know then that ten years later I would be serving as the Episcopal Chaplain at Harvard University. And so the first thing I want to do is to express by deep gratitude to this great school for playing such an important role in my formation as a priest and a chaplain.

My assignment today, however, is to reflect with you for a few minutes about the theme of “epiphany” by, among other things, sharing with you a personal story of epiphany. An epiphany, as any good St. Albans student knows, is an appearance or a manifestation or a clarifying moment, often times associated with the divine. "The epiphany," of course, is the classic story of the three magi who are led to the infant Jesus by the appearance of a star in the sky and to whom the divinity of the Christ child is revealed in all its glory. But there are many other stories of epiphany in our Bible. Sometimes epiphanies take the form of visions, as when Paul is knocked off his horse by an overwhelming vision of Christ that literally blinds him with its reality or when God appears to Moses for the first time in the unquenchable fire of the burning bush.  

But at other times, epiphany stories are not visual at all, but subtler messages from God about his purposes for our lives, as when Elijah hears the “still, small voice of God” in the silence of the caves of Mt. Horeb. One of my parishioners at a church I serve on the north shore of Massachusetts is Martha Updike, the widow of the late great American writer, John Updike. John was a faithful Episcopalian in the last decades of his life – indeed, he is buried in my church – and Martha tells me that when his skeptic friends asked John why he believed in God, Updike once said that “if there is no God, then the world is nothing more than a freak show. And I do not experience the world as a freak show.” And then he added:  “It is not that I have had a beatific vision or some other emphatically clear revelation from God.  It is, rather, that I keep hearing whispers from the wings of the stage.”  

My own epiphany story is somewhere between a vision and a whisper. And, as it happens, my story centers around the late Jane Holmes Dixon, the former bishop of Washington and great friend of this school, who died in her sleep this past Christmas morning and who was just buried from the Cathedral this past Saturday, on the eve of Epiphany. My story took place twelve years ago, during the week before Christmas. I was at that time fully engaged in the practice of  law, although I had just embarked upon the process of discerning whether I might be called to be a priest.  I had submitted the relevant paperwork and had the relevant conversations with the decisionmakers. And I was waiting to hear whether I would be invited to move forward toward seminary and then ordination.  

Then one morning came a call from my parish priest, telling me that Bishop Dixon had just announced her retirement and that this would mean that any decision about my candidacy for the priesthood would have to wait for at least a year, maybe longer, until a new bishop was elected. I was crestfallen. The thought of having to wait for another year or two for a decision about whether I could even start the 3-5 year process toward ordination was too much to bear.

And as it happens, at the time I was incredibly swamped at work preparing for a trial that was set to start right after Christmas. I had been working day and night at the office, not able to spend much time with my family. They were understandably frustrated with me.  And to make matters worse, I had not found the time to go out and get our Christmas tree and here it was just a week before Christmas.  

I was in a foul mood, stressed out about my upcoming trial, depressed about my prospects about becoming a priest, and at odds with my family because of how little time I had for them. I certainly was in no frame of mind to go out late at night to get a Christmas tree.  But I went anyway, driving down Wisconsin Avenue toward the tree farm where we always got our tree. On my way there, in the silence of my car, I came to a decision: this business about giving up my law practice to become a priest was for the birds. It was taking too much time, too much energy, and didn’t seem to be going anywhere. I would withdraw.  

Having made up my mind, I arrived at the tree farm. I parked my car, got out, and started wandering amidst the rows of trees. It was a cold, clear night, with brilliant stars illuminating the dark sky.  As I looked down one of the rows of trees, suddenly, seemingly out of nowhere, emerged a graceful, older woman. I did not recognize her at first. She stepped toward me, reached out and grabbed my hands in hers, looked me in the eyes and said:  “Hello, Luther. It is so good to see you. I hope you’ll be patient with us. I promise you: all will be well.” And, as quickly as she emerged from the trees, she vanished. It had been Bishop Dixon.  

I have no idea why Bishop Dixon was there that night at that time. I have no idea what, if anything, I said to her. I was in such a state of shock from the unexpected encounter, I may well have just stood there dumbly. But what I do know is that her utterly unexpected presence that night in the midst of my despair, the simple words she spoke to me, and the gentle touch of her hands, were exactly what I needed in that moment and gave me the strength and the patience to see my way through toward this new calling.

The skeptical will call it a coincidence. And I certainly cannot prove to you that this seemingly serendipitous encounter with a Bishop, late at night, in the middle of a grove of Christmas trees, was a real epiphany. But I can tell you that I cannot explain it in purely natural terms, that I experienced this chance meeting as grace, and that the power of the experience immediately lifted from my shoulders the burden of all my worries and left no doubt in my mind as to what I should do. And I can also tell you that I wouldn’t be where I am but for that moment.

I am convinced that moments of grace like this are happening all around us, every day, in each of our lives. God, working through the Holy Spirit, is opening doors for us, subtly pointing us in the right direction, comforting us when we need to be consoled, giving us hope in the midst of our failures and encouragement in the face of our disappointments. Whether you know it or not, God is working in and through the people in your lives, guiding you to where He wants you to be. The signs are there if you only attend to them.  In this season of Epiphany, I urge you to keep your eyes and ears open.  You just might be surprised.  God bless you all. And may the Right Reverend Jane Holmes Dixon rest in peace and rise in glory. Amen.

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