United Church of Newport
August 7, 2011
“A Kneeling God”
Texts: Psalm 40: 1-5, 16-17, John 13: 1-17, 31b-35
This is a sermon about a man on his knees. This is a sermon about a simple meal, shared with friends one final time before a cataclysmic end. It is a sermon about learning how to read in the face of a great disaster. This is a sermon about the last night of the man Jesus, the one we believe reveals the unknown face of God to us. His head is bowed low, his eyes are not raised too high, and his face is hard to see. Stay awake if you can, and watch with me.
Watch how he deliberately discards his clothing, wrapping nothing more than a towel around himself to cover his naked vulnerability. Watch how he bends over to undo the laces of his friends’ sandals. Watch how he washes their feet on his hands and knees, miming a lavish gesture performed earlier by a woman who loved him. Watch as one of his friends, a man named Simon, protests at the lowliness, the shamefulness of this gesture. And then watch how he passes bread and wine among his friends, taking what little comfort he can from their company. Watch and learn, for these are the ways you will recognize him after he has gone. Behold the man, now, while he is before you. In a short time, you won’t see him at all.
In his great novel Moby-Dick, Herman Melville wrote that every significant revelation contains more darkness than light. These are words that apply to theology, and indeed, to the very fabric of our lives, better than they apply to whaling. The stories of Jesus, particularly the night on which he ate his final meal with his disciples is, after all, a sea of inky darkness, punctured at the end by a thin ray of light, a rumor of glory. But in many ways, it is the darkness itself that makes the story of Jesus so compelling, compelling enough to retell his stories Sunday after Sunday, year after year. In many ways, the darkness is where we all happen to live. We have had intimations of that fact over the past few weeks as our leaders have pushed us all to the economic brink, teetering at the edge of another economic meltdown, though of course nobody knows for sure what a credit default might have entailed. We felt it when the markets collapsed three years ago, eliminating our savings and retirement plans, plunging the world into a precarious state that we have yet to emerge from. And we felt the darkness nearly ten years ago now when the towers fell, an anniversary we’ll soon observe. That was an act that set us careening through a decade of incessant warfare, suspicion, fear, and anxiety. If we’re honest, we’ll admit that darkness is the sea in which we swim.
But it isn’t the catastrophic violence of this decade, or even the past century, that makes the world feel dark to us. Nor is it the wrenching upheavals we feel when the medical reports come back or a loved one slips out of our grasp that makes the darkness seem so thick. What makes this darkness feel so close at times is the lingering suspicion, the dread even, that we have been abandoned, and that we are drifting on this sea alone. In our darkest hours, we fear that when Jesus went away those 2000 years ago, he just went. At times, if we are honest, we fear that our prayers simply arrive at a cosmic dead letter office, never having reached their destination. In short, we fear we are the sailors aboard the Pequod, Captain Ahab’s ship in Melville’s novel, bobbing on the waters of infinite nothingness, searching for an absent God who swims somewhere beneath the surface of that infinity. There are times when all we can hear is the steady beating of the waves on the side of our little ship. And it sends a holy chill up our spines.
Steven Spielberg gave us a high-tech parable that voiced these very questions and fears for us in a film that deserves more recognition than it received. The film was called A.I., and it might be seen as a theological companion piece to his treatment of the Holocaust in Schindler’s List. A.I. tells the story of an artificial boy named David, symbolic of the Jewish people, who was created by a benevolent scientist, and then was given life itself by the words of a loving mother. But the mother’s love is finite, and she abandons David in a lush forest when her own flesh and blood child begins to compete for her affections. David is cast out of his Eden, and into a world that is hostile toward artificial life forms like him. In one scene, a blatant science fiction recreation of the Holocaust, humans amuse themselves by incinerating artificial people in fire and acid. The rest of the film is an odyssey through this dangerous world, and we find David bewildered at his abandonment, stunned by the viciousness of humanity, and yet longing to reconnect with the mother who has left him. There is no accusation or finger pointing in David. Only a deep need to find the one who brought him into being, to be held by her once again. Immediately behind David, we can hear Spielberg himself giving voice to his own questions about God, wondering where in this cruel world she has gone and how he might find her. We might say that with this film, Spielberg casts himself as a member of Ahab’s crew. He too apparently feels the cold lap of the waves against the hull of the boat. It seems to send a shiver up his spine as well. In this high-tech, postmodern parable of darkness and abandonment, Spielberg’s question seems to be “Where are you, my God, my mother?” We ourselves are bobbing on this same dark sea, and we give voice to our own version of the question whenever our fears kick up, asking “O Jesus, where have you gone?” Though we voice the question in different ways, we are all in this together, we Christians and Jews, Muslims and Hindus, atheists and whoever else you wish to name. We are all tossed about on the same blank sea, wondering where and who we are. Some among us wonder from time to time where God is.
I don’t think these questions and fears about God’s absence are unique to our own time. In fact, these issues are much the same as those faced by the earliest followers of Jesus. When Jesus died, the rug was yanked from beneath their feet, and they found themselves flat on their backs, staring up at an empty sky, wondering what had happened. They also lived in a world of brute violence and stark tragedy. This odd collection of Jewish vagabonds had attached all their hopes to a man who ended up hanging from a tree, a victim of the Roman legal system. For a few years, he made them feel as though their lives had worth and meaning, that they were investing themselves in something grander than their occupation as fishermen or tax collectors, something that connected them to God. When Jesus was with them, they didn’t feel adrift and alone in the world. Instead, they felt as though God was present, helping them, sustaining them, giving them a sense of purpose and belonging. Jesus showed them a way of being in the world that transcended the ruthless force of Rome and the petty legalism of their ordinary religious lives, and they basked in the glow of his radiance. To see him grasp the hand of an afflicted woman, say, and speak words of comfort that quieted the woman’s troubles was to rest assured that here, in this very man, God was with them. But when Jesus was yanked away from them in an act of calculated violence, God seemed to disappear as well. In that respect, the disciples lives resemble our own – fearful that in the latest disaster, whether national or personal, God has turned tail and fled from us.
So when, in Luke’s Gospel in a passage we didn’t hear this morning, we read about two disciples walking on the road to Emmaus three days after Jesus died, we can understand their sadness and their loss. We can understand how very adrift they feel, having witnessed their own personal disaster not three days earlier. Like a good many of us, they had come unhinged. But then a startling encounter takes place. A stranger meets them on the road and they share their sadness with him. They tell him about Jesus, how he would take an afflicted man’s hand and soothe him, about how they felt when they were with him, about everything they had lost when Jesus stopped breathing. They told the stranger what it was like to come undone. The stranger listens, and then responds with a Bible lesson, of all things, opening the Scriptures to the disciples, teaching them how to read. When they stop to rest at an inn that evening, the forlorn disciples beg the stranger to stay with them. He agrees. When it comes time to eat, they gather for a simple meal. The stranger looks at them and then tears a loaf of bread in two. The world shimmers, and for a second both of the disciples are back in the upper room with Jesus on that awful night when all hell was unleashed, watching him on his knees, watching him tear the bread into pieces, hearing him tell them about the Scriptures. Another shimmer, and they are back in Emmaus, just the two of them. The stranger is gone now. But they are suddenly quite certain that when they heard the stranger talk, when they had looked into his eyes, they had seen Jesus. And with this certainty, their hearts begin to burn with something they thought had died three days earlier, something, I might add, that burns to this very day.
I’ve told you all along that this is a sermon about a man on his knees. What is he doing in that upper room? Why is he stooped so low at the feet of his friends? Why does food figure in the conversation on that terrible night? The answer, of course, lies in the Emmaus story. On that last night, Jesus is teaching his friends how to find him after he has gone. He knows the world will seem a heartbreaking and lonely place, but he is taking pains to show them where to look for him, carefully instructing his friends on how to recognize him when the disaster is over and the numbness sets in. Here is something, perhaps, of what this man Jesus is saying to his friends: when God seems most absent and you feel most forlorn, do not raise your eyes too high, but look beneath you, at your feet, for you may see the face of a kneeling God there. When you are tempted to believe that I am no longer with you, look deeply into the eyes of a stranger. Know one another and break bread together, for in the sharing of your lives, I will be there. When it seems too much to believe that God still looks after you, stoop low, and untie the sandals of the widow, the orphan, or the unnamed traveler. Untie them, and wash them, with your tears if you must. Serve one another in love. When you do, you will find me there. When you feel adrift and the world does not make sense to you, open the Scriptures and read them carefully, for in the very act of interpreting those words, I will be with you. Learn to read. Learn to eat. Learn to kneel. These will be enough for you when I am gone. When you do these things, you will see my face again. And if you forget them, don’t be afraid, for I will find a way to help you remember.
These words are for us as well, we who so often feel adrift and alone on the high seas of life. Our lives are no less storm tossed than those of the earliest Christians, the ones who witnessed the demise of the one named Jesus. We too are on the road to Emmaus, wondering how we will get by now that Jesus is gone, for we are all in this together, we ancients and postmoderns. Jesus is no longer with us, not physically, but let us remember what he showed us on that night in the upper room. Let us remember that when the world goes cold, that we will find our bearings again, will find Jesus again, when we break bread with one another, or better still, when we become bread for one another. Let us remember that when the world feels most dangerous and hostile, that we will see Jesus when we look deeply into the eyes of an unnamed stranger. Let us remember that when the abyss opens beneath our feet, that we must look down, at our feet, if we are to see the one we name God. Remember these things today, as we kneel side by side at this rail, as we break bread together. But remember these things tomorrow as well, and the day after that. Remember to do these things until the thin ray of light, the rumor of glory, punctures your darkness and the darkness of this world.
This is a sermon about a man on his knees. Watch him. Pay close attention, for the nights can be lonely, the sea can be rough, and the darkness can draw close. Watch this kneeling God, and stay awake if you can.
August 14, 2011
“Of Water and Words: A Twenty-First Century Prophet”
Texts: Jeremiah 1: 4-10, Luke 4: 14-30
Here’s a story that the writer David Foster Wallace told to a group of graduating college students: one fine summer morning two young fish are swimming along in the ocean when they encounter an older fish. The older fish says, “Morning boys. How’s the water?” The two younger fish keep on swimming, and don’t answer. Finally, one of the younger fish looks at the other one and says, “What in the world is water?” It’s a story that Wallace told in order to underscore the way that the most important truths about our lives are often the things that are so close to us we can’t even see them, don’t even know they’re there. The value of an education, Wallace tells his charges, is not so much that you learn how to think, which would be a little condescending because of course there are plenty of smart and thoughtful people who never bother with college. The value is not that you learn how to think, but that you might be given some clues as to what is worth thinking about. Better yet, he says, an education might give you some guidance about what is worth worshiping, because it seems to be true that we as human beings will end up worshiping something or other, whether power or beauty or money or knowledge or an ideology or even just entertainment, none of which seem to be particularly life giving. Educational setting aside, Wallace’s words are a distilled version of most everything he wrote, all of which seems to be a way of saying “This is water. This is water. Please don’t fall asleep.” And though his commencement address was meant for a group of kids graduating from Kenyon College, I think he could just as well have been talking about the life of a church community, where week by week we do the hard work of reminding ourselves about the things that matter most to us, things like God and Jesus and the Spirit, yes, but also things like justice, other people, and the created world itself. Wallace was a novelist and essayist, but I want to suggest that he was as fine a prophet for a postmodern, twenty-first century
This is my second to last Sunday with you, and next week I’ll find a way to say goodbye. But there’s still another week, which means there’s still time to play. I’ve been thinking lately about the prophets, and what prophecy might mean in a time such as ours. And so on this Sunday I offer you something slightly offbeat as I try to catch a glimpse of the gospel in what seems an unlikely place. This morning I offer you David Foster Wallace.
Wallace made headlines a few years ago after his untimely death, but if you don’t know much about him, now’s the time to fill you in. He wrote his first novel on the side back in the mid-eighties, while he was a college student at
It still makes me sad to speak it or write about it, because he was one of my own heroes, a thinker able to look into the clutter of American millennial life and to discern moments of joy and hope in the midst of what seems to me a deadening chaff that constantly bombards our skulls. I discovered him by accident while paging through Harper’s magazine one day, trying to avoid writing a paper I didn’t care to write. It was an essay on grammar, of all things, but something about his voice made me keep reading – he was unbelievably bright, and very, very funny, that much was clear, but it was the warmth and compassion of his writing that drew me in. Even here, even in an essay on grammar, there seemed to be a vision of the world that was informed by what seemed to be a sense of religious or spiritual contemplation. I kept reading, and it slowly became clear to me that Wallace was attempting something on the scale of another of my favorite novelists, Dostoevsky, whom I’ve mentioned from this pulpit before. He was trying to diagnose the spiritual malaise of millennial American culture, and to offer a way through it, much as Dostoevsky did for nineteenth century Russian culture. While reading Wallace, a famous story from Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov often came to mind, a story known as “The Grand Inquisitor.” In that story, the chief architect of the Spanish Inquisition confronts a captive Jesus, telling him that all human beings want are miracles, mystery and authority. The Inquisitor is prepared to offer those things, while Jesus can only offer a humble kind of freedom. The contemporary world that Wallace described was one where people seemed dazzled, and dehumanized, by splashy, spectacular, digitized versions of miracles, mystery, and authority. Even so, he wrote about a humble kind of freedom akin to that found in Dostoevsky’s novels, and even, I would argue, the Gospel stories themselves.
One time I even had the opportunity to ask Wallace about the spiritual themes that keep cropping up in his works when I met him at a book signing, admitting along the way that religion was something I studied. He replied by saying that the older he got, the more he realized just how important a sense of spirituality, and religion, was. He looked me in the eye and told me that what I was doing, thinking hard about God, was extremely valuable, something I confess that I wondered about in those days, and still do from time to time. Coming from him, it felt like good news. Wallace’s death makes me sad, because the spiritual malaise that he diagnosed so well, and that he seemed to be navigating so well, finally got the best of him. But that seems to be the way it goes with prophets everywhere: they rarely tangle with devils and make it out unscathed.
Before I tell you more about David Foster Wallace, a more fundamental question is in order: what does it mean, really, to call someone a prophet? At heart, I think a prophet is a person who awakens us to the very fullness of life, someone who urges us to stay vigilant in the face of everything that would hypnotize us. They remind us that there are human beings lying beneath our tiny injustices, our nationalisms, our jingoistic clichés and our stereotypes. They remind us that underneath our often deadening routines and habits there are a million interesting and complex things in the world that beg to be noticed and celebrated, and yes, sometimes changed. Prophets are people with an uncanny ability to unhook us from the machinery of our lives so that we are enabled to see, really see, the dynamics that occur in a life or in a culture. But most of all, I think, they enable us to see other people, and to understand the myriad ways we are connected to them, and have the power to harm them or to help them. I think prophets are those who encourage us to “feel” again, not in a sentimental Hallmark moment kind of way, which is one more way to be diverted into semi-consciousness, but in terms of fellow-feeling, of com-passion, of suffering with. Which means that the prophet is going to remorselessly expose all the ways that you yourself work to avoid your own feelings of pain, loneliness, boredom, rage, and maybe true happiness as well, because it’s only insofar as you’re able to sense those things in yourself that you’ll be able to stand with others in their hurt or brokenness or joy – which is to say, in their humanity. So a prophet keeps us awake to the possibilities of life itself.
One more thing about prophets: they tend to be indirect, elusive, and sometimes just playful in eliciting that sense of feeling that I’m talking about. Sometimes seeing the truth about our actions or about our society is like looking at the sky on a starry night – if you gaze at the stars directly, you may not see much, but if you learn to see from your peripheral vision, out of the corner of your eye, the contours of the galaxy suddenly seem visible. There are all sorts of ways that a prophet pulls this off - visual art, music, dance, social organizing, or political agitation - but as often as not, their chosen medium for eliciting that elusive sense of fellow-feeling is words. In the Hebrew Bible, it was a scathing kind of poetry that was used, a tactic borrowed later by the writer of Revelation at the end of the Bible. For Jesus, it was a series of strange tales that don’t always add up logically, but linger nevertheless, spreading through a person like a growing mustard seed, like crabgrass that can’t be controlled, which is what his entire life ended up becoming, a strange and lingering tale that we can’t stop thinking about, talking about, singing about. I think this focus upon words – poetry, stories, and persuasive rhetoric - is somehow important, for words tend to be the most basic and fundamental building block that we use to construct our sense of the world, to construct a sense of ourselves, to construct an impression of other people. To put something into words is to become aware, to become conscious. Few people in our contemporary world have put words to better prophetic effect than Wallace did in his novels and essays. Like most prophetic texts, you’re not aware of what hits you until after the fact, when your mind keeps returning to the strange and elusive and maybe true words that comprise his books. I submit that for those with eyes to see and ears to hear, David Foster Wallace’s books are exquisitely wrought parables for a postmodern age.
Infinite Jest is the book that displays these prophetic and parabolic qualities most of all. The
For all of its slightly fantastical elements, most of Infinite Jest circulates between two ordinary settings in Boston, the first a halfway house with a cast of colorful characters struggling against “the spider,” their term for alcohol and drug addiction, and the other an elite tennis academy, filled with unbelievably bright, talented and driven kids, who have some addictions of their own – the pursuit of athletic prowess and fame, the dependence upon alcohol and marijuana to ease the pressures they face, and the reliance upon rankings and the achievement of goals for feelings of self-worth. These two settings represent the poles of comparative privilege and neglect in American society, but residents of both the halfway house and the elite academy, for all the differences in their social location, face similar questions: why do I yield to the substances and pleasures and pursuits that I do yield to? What is the source of the emptiness that I feel when the pleasure has been attained? Is there anything that is worth giving myself to, really? What would it mean to transcend myself and my own petty concerns? What would it mean to actually love another human being? Could I ever overcome my own self-absorption to selflessly care for another? And what would it mean to believe in a God, or in Jesus, or Mohammed, or anything at all? Is that just one more way to submit to whatever or whoever can provide miracle, mystery and authority, to whoever can provide a sense of spectacle and ultimately, escape?
Those questions circulate around Infinite Jest in various guises and forms as characters attempt to discover some way to orient themselves in an
I think that David Foster Wallace’s writings are prophetic utterances that deserve to be read by people of faith. They can be elusive, playful, incredibly funny, and more than a little pointed. They are reminders of the ways consumer capitalism can prey upon us, rendering us inert and inattentive to the deeper realities that exist in our social structures, in our families, and in our hearts. They are urgent provocations to be mindful, to pay attention, to choose well what we worship, to see what is before us, to see who is before us. If that has everything to do with the function of a prophet, I also think it has everything to do with the posture of religious faith in the world, which includes those of us who find our way to church from time to time. In one way or another, I suspect it is tempting for many of us to understand God as something akin to the spectacle, to the show, something indescribably big, all-powerful, all-knowing, all consuming; the very definition of miracle, mystery and authority in other words. Sometimes I wonder if thinking of God in those ways diminishes our ability to see God in other, less spectacular ways. Wallace’s writing, especially Infinite Jest, reminds us of the importance of little things, where small gestures, tender embraces, kind words, genuine questions, real emotion, and honest talk may have more to do with the love of God than whatever abstract qualities we can summon to describe such a being. Like Dostoevsky before him, Wallace’s books provide hints and intimations of the strange and humble freedom that Jesus seems to provide in the Gospel stories, stories that we read every week in this place. If there is a way through the spiritual chaff of contemporary American life, it may have something to do with remembering these small gestures, and coming to believe in a small and tender God revealed in such moments.
I’ll continue to be sad about the loss of David Foster Wallace for a long time to come. He wrote books that tried to make us feel less alone, that tried to open us up to the wonder of the world, and I wish there was a way that he could have felt those things on the night he died. I wish this prophet could have emerged from his ordeal whole, but that doesn’t seem to be the way of prophets. Instead, whether in biblical times or in the present, as often as not they leave behind a trail of words that testify to their vision, words tangled with exuberance and humor, bewilderment and anger, wonder and praise, chastisement and narrative play. I hope David Foster Wallace’s words continue to find people inside and outside of faith communities like our own. I hope he continues to remind us all of the water that we swim in, and the currents that invariably bear us along, the better to make us mindful of the deep needs of the world around us. Amen.
United Church of Newport
August 21, 2011
Texts: Psalm 124, James 1: 1-4
“Count it all Joy”
I have a confession to make, one that I have been keeping close to my chest all summer: I’m 37 years old, and I still have a favorite band. I feel a little bit sheepish about that, like I should have outgrown it when I graduated from college, or when I got married, or at least when I started having kids of my own. Nevertheless, here I stand. I can do no other. They call themselves The Hold Steady, and they’ve been dubbed “America’s best bar band” by critics on the blogosphere. Their albums and songs are witty and knowing chronicles of young adults trying to find their way amidst the music festivals and protests, the parties and the disheveled mornings of twenty and thirty-something life. As with most of my favorite things, underneath all the witty banter about drugs and girls and boys finding their way together is a haunting sense of God, and even liturgy. A character in one song finds his way to a five o’clock folk mass. Another character scrawls a homemade tattoo on her arm with the words “Jesus Lived and Died For All Your Sins.” That haunting sense of God comes out when The Hold Steady perform live as well, for at the end of every show, after chronicling the joys and depravities, the ecstasy and the abiding loneliness of being young in America, Craig Finn, the lead singer, says the following words. He tells the audience to “never forget, there’s so much joy in the world, and there’s so much joy in what we do.” He’s been leading a kind of liturgy all along, and at the end Craig Finn becomes our preacher. There’s so much joy in what we do.
Those are the words I’d like to leave you with as well, for I think it sums up all that we’re about every time we gather for worship or fellowship, for meetings or church school or Vacation Bible School. There’s so much joy in what we do. Or at least, there can be. When asked what the predominant characteristic of the Christian in the world is, Karl Barth, one of the twentieth century’s most prominent theologians responded that it’s joy, pure and simple. He said that after living through two world wars and the devastating economic collapses they produced. He said it having witnessed the rise of fascism on the right and totalitarianism on the left. He said it having survived some bitter theological disputes. In the face of all that would tear the world apart, in the teeth of all the hardships and trouble of modernity, Karl Barth, like Craig Finn of The Hold Steady, tells us to count it all joy.
Of course, it’s not that we don’t come to this place burdened with cares and sorrows, shame and guilt. It’s not that we don’t come with a sense of hurt and brokenness and fear. God knows we do. God knows sometimes I do. It’s rather that we don’t ascribe ultimate value to those things. We’ve heard whispers about something called resurrected life, something begun many years ago in Jesus of Nazareth. We’ve heard rumors about a love that refuses to give up on the world, even in its grimiest moments. And every Sunday, we’re bold enough to celebrate those whispers and rumors in the liturgy we perform here, a liturgy that can be summed up as the celebration of life against the power of death.
One of my favorite moments this whole summer came when our family attended a small circus that rolled through town one weekend. It was a pretty humble affair – a sparse crowd in a sweaty tent set up by some ball fields. All the performers doubled as vendors, such that the girl selling concessions toward the beginning was suddenly revealed as a tightrope walker, while one of the clowns snapped photos during intermission. The costumes were pretty corny and what stage props existed looked thrown together from a Party Goods store. My first instinct was to feel a little embarrassed for the performers, and to wonder how it is that someone might wind up traveling with a small circus. But somewhere in the midst of it, after two different women did marvelous pirouettes perched some thirty feet in the air, and after another person walked the tightrope, after the clown poked fun at the self seriousness of the audience and after a girl not much older than Sabina contorted herself into all sorts of poses, after watching an entire family perform tricks while standing on moving horses – I found myself awed.
And then it struck me that I was watching another kind of liturgy unfold, one possessing remarkable resonances with the liturgies ordinary church folk attend and perform every week around the world. By entering the circus tent, the world became slightly strange and off-kilter. Ordinary identities organized around consumption and exchange were cast off, as the acrobats set down their popcorn and glow sticks and literally soared through the air, defying all known laws of gravity. The clown found a way to communicate with us through a whistle alone, and in the process managed to make us aware of how absurd we can all be. Wild beasts seemed tame, and they seemed to trust the man and woman standing on their backs as they trotted around. A juggler kept half a dozen swords in the air, and then transformed himself into Michael Jackson in front of us all, moonwalking and sliding his way across the floor. He did it without irony. For all of its vaudeville corniness, I realized that I was witnessing yet another celebration of life amidst the power of death, and almost in spite of myself, my cynicism melted into a kind of joy.
What I witnessed at the circus happens here too, you know. Entering the doors of the church every Sunday is to be invited into a different world than the one we’re accustomed to, not unlike entering the circus tent. Like the acrobats setting down their wares and then soaring through the air, we too are invited to take on new identities here, identities where we proclaim ourselves a redeemed and reconciled people. When we confess our sins together, for example, we suddenly become more than the struggling and sometimes guilty people we are – in that moment we become forgiven, and learn to see ourselves as something more than we have been, a little better than we ordinarily manage to be. When we hear the reading of the Scriptures we hear about a world miraculously transformed by grace. We witness our friends and neighbors sharing their various talents in music and readings, the preparation of food, the running of meetings and the balancing of budgets (a miraculous acrobatic art if ever there was one). And we proclaim in word and deed the death and resurrection of Jesus, which is one more way of saying that in the midst of the overwhelming losses and the devastating catastrophes that we sometimes live through, God is faithful, softly and gently sustaining us along the way. Here and there, and now and then, flashes of joy animate the entire landscape of our lives like a lightning bolt, and we see it all for the grace that it is. Here and there, and now and then.
You all have been a flash of joy to me this summer, and to Rachael and Sabina and Elsa as well. I had finished working as a hospital chaplain a mere week before driving up to Vermont to begin this work, and I was hammered flat. There had been a lot of late nights in the Emergency Room witnessing devastated lives and wounded flesh, a lot of intense conversations with broken people on the burn unit. There were a lot of prayers offered for tiny babies that didn’t make it past the first days or weeks of life, and then long hours spent with grieving parents or family members as they coped with the immensity of their loss. There had been a lot of self-scrutiny as well, as I delved into the complex feelings that erupted within me every time I encountered one of those disasters, and began working through some of my own long-term emotional patterns. There were flashes of joy in that work, to be sure, as moments of intimate connection with strangers took place, but I was wearing thin. The cumulative effect of all that suffering was taking a toll on my spirit, and on that of our family as well.
The four of us arrived in Newport in waves. Each arrival brought with it a car packed tight full of stuff, all of it compressed and compacted for maximum effect. Within all that stuff, we folded a small inflatable pool for the girls in with the boxes of books and clothes. It was shrunken to a fraction of its full size. Soon after we all arrived, we pulled it out and I spent ten minutes blowing air into it, watching it expand and fill out. Then we filled it with water and began to play. The girls poured water on each other, stayed cool through the heat of July, and giggled uproariously as they tried to soak their parents. I myself feel a little like that inflatable pool, for your warm welcome, your hospitality, your encouragement, and your willingness to try new things, hear new things, speak new things, filled me with breath, filled me with spirit, filled me with life. I remember remarking to Martha as she showed me around Newport just how good it felt to be doing this work. I remember how much I enjoyed, and still enjoy, meeting you all and hearing some of your stories. By the time Vacation Bible School rolled around, I was fully aware that it was something like joy that I was experiencing in your midst. If the previous year had left me feeling hammered flat, this summer has felt expansive, an invitation to play, even in the midst of some very serious and sometimes difficult work. I think that sense of joy and expansiveness has everything to do with you.
My own process aside, what I discovered here is the welcome news that reports about the demise of small mainline churches may be exaggerated. It’s true, there aren’t as many churches like this one left, and it’s true that many that remain are shrinking. Even so, your presence and witness is a reminder to look past statistics and trends, for here in the upper most reaches of what is purported to be one of the most irreligious portions of the country, the United Church of Newport stands out for its resourcefulness, its level of commitment to its neighbors, the generosity of spirit found among you, its members. It stands out for the deep wells of care that you regularly extend to one another, and that you’ve extended to me, a stranger in your midst (though I hope I have become a little more than a stranger by now). All summer long I marveled at the way receptions came together after funerals, at the way the organizational operations of the Food Shelf happened, at the way Community Dinners were pulled together. I marveled at how Patty Thomas facilitates a smooth administrative operation, and at how Dave Johnson handles the operations of this building so well. I marveled at the pot-luck feast you threw in my honor last Sunday, and I marveled at the gracious thanks you offered me. I’m not so naïve as to think those things happen as if by magic, as if out of thin air. They happen because of the commitment and care and dedication exhibited by so many of you. Most churches would be fortunate to have one or two folks like that in their midst. It’s astonishing that here there are dozens, and well more than that. You’re fortunate to have one another, and I’m fortunate to have had you as well.
A final word on that score. Numerous churches are filled with talented and committed people, but without stable, consistent and thoughtful pastoral leadership, as often as not those churches fly to pieces. It’s true, I am young, but I’ve been in and out of enough churches in the course of my life to know that I should never take the seeming steadiness of a church community for granted. You deserve much credit for that. But I think just as much credit goes toward the quality and level of pastoral leadership you’ve been afforded over the years. From all I can tell, you have been blessed with a string of highly competent and thoughtful ministers. And from all I can tell, you’re remarkably blessed to have Martha’s pastoral leadership now. I’ve learned much from her this summer just from being around this place, and in sharing meals and conversations with her. I’m glad to count her as a friend, and as a trusted mentor. For my sake and for hers, I’m glad you gave her the time away she needed to nourish her spirit. But I’m glad for your sake as well, because I think you have an enormously gifted minister in your presence. That you offered her a much-needed sabbatical suggests that you already know that, that you cherish and honor the gifts that she brings you. It’s further testimony to your thoughtfulness and care, a further reminder of the quality of this place.
The writer of James urges the recipients of his short epistle to count every hardship and setback, every persecution and difficulty as having the potential for a form of hidden grace. He urges them to count it all joy. You have been an enormous part of my own joy this summer. But more than that, I hope that here and there and now and then, you’ve sensed the joy that we enact in our liturgy and in this community Sunday after Sunday, week after week, for it is a joyful thing we do here. Amidst a world that all too often seems to revel in the moral power of death, we show up every week to insist that things might be otherwise. Amidst feelings of being devalued by the loss of employment, say, or the fruitless search for meaningful work, we insist on the dignity and worth of all. In the midst of a culture that degrades and trashes so much of the material world, we insist on the goodness of the created order. In the midst of whatever interior voices we might hear that tell us we’re unlovable, we come here to be reminded just how loved we are by God and by those around us. In the midst of identities organized around acts of consumption and exchange, we come here to insist that we, and the whole world as well, are so much more. In the midst of so much gravity, so much that would drag us into the pit, we mount the tightrope every week and pray for balance. Whether you recognize it or not, in the midst of it all we perform impossible pirouettes of the spirit, insisting on the power of resurrection life against the power of death.
In a few days Rachael, Sabina, Elsa and I will load our cars to make the return trip to Connecticut. We’re going to miss you. As we roll back down that highway, and as we undergo still more transitions (a new baby, a new teaching job for me, kindergarten for Sabina), we’ll think fondly of this summer, and of the ways we were nourished by this community. Know how deeply grateful we are. If you think about it every now and then, say a prayer for us. We could probably use it. We’ll do the same for you.
And lest you’re tempted to forget amidst the routine and sometimes the sheer struggle of it all, remember those words from The Hold Steady: there’s so much joy in what we do here. Count it all joy. Amen.
Blazing But Not Consumed
Exodus 3:1-15, Matthew 16:25-25
August 28th, 2011
Scripture has strange power. How can it be that stories thousands of years old, stories set among nomadic herders in the deserts of the Middle East can resonate with our lives? These tales with their strange supernatural elements and heroic characters seem, on first hearing, to be far removed from our daily lives. And yet….on closer consideration, we begin to see strands that link our lives-- of faith and doubt-- to these ancient stories. None of us would ever dream of casting ourselves in the role of Moses, the great liberator of the Hebrew slaves, the receiver of the Ten Commandments. And yet….there are parts of his story that we can relate to very well.
In chapter three of Exodus, Moses is midway through his life, and midway through his story, although he has yet to accomplish anything noteworthy. He was hidden as a child in a basket in the Nile, raised in the royal household of the Pharaoh, and exiled after he killed an overseer who was mistreating a Hebrew slave. Fleeing, he has found refuge in Midian, married a local woman, and became a sheep herder. His life seems to be sliding into safe anonymity.
But then one day, while he is alone in the desert with his sheep, he sees something he can neither explain nor account for: A bush, blazing but not turned to ash, burning but not consumed. God is trying to get Moses’ attention, and Moses has the spiritual curiosity to stop and look, even though his heart is pounding at the strangeness of the sight.
God's words to Moses come as both invitation and warning:
“Come no closer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground. He said further, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham , the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.”
Now you could say that there is only one Moses, and that God does not go around calling people’s names out of burning bushes every day, and you would be right. Or, you could say that burning bushes are everywhere, and that it is more a matter of our own willingness, our readiness to pay attention—to the hummingbird hovering above a flower, to the leaf shimmering in the wind, to the lightning crashing and hail spattering on the roof. And you would also be right. Holy ground is all around us, and what makes it holy is mainly our capacity to stop and hear God calling our names.
I am not sure what is implied in God’s command to Moses to take off his sandals. Perhaps the gesture serves as a mark of respect. To this day, Muslims remove their shoes before they prostrate themselves in prayer. Perhaps Moses needed to be barefoot so that there would be no barrier between the soles of his feet and the holy ground. He needed to be vulnerable, simple, unprotected.
After taking off his sandals, Moses’ reaction is complicated. On the one hand we can see that he is fascinated by the burning bush and the voice that calls him by name. On the other hand, he “hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God.” Undoubtedly, he was afraid because of the strange and unearthly power of this experience. Perhaps he was worried God might ask him to do something difficult (a reasonable fear, as it turns out!) But I think, most of all, he was terrified that he would prove unworthy of God’s close scrutiny.
And although you and I are not Moses, don’t we do the same complicated dance sometimes in our spiritual lives? We are drawn to God’s blazing light but also try to hide in the shadows. We want to come near to God, but we are fearful of what might be asked of us. We want to serve God, but are wary of getting involved in anything that might turn out to be inconvenient or dangerous.
God selected Moses to be Liberator, Law Giver, and Guide through forty years of wilderness wandering. Moses was, and still is, “hot stuff” in the roster of heroes of the Jewish and Christian faiths. Yet he was an unlikely hero—at middle age, a fugitive shepherd tending his father-in-law’s livestock. One moral of this story is: Don’t be so sure that God does not have some surprising work for you, yet to do.
Notice how Moses’ call unfolds here, not with a list of his qualifications—his skills as a leader, his navigational and diplomatic expertise, his cross-cultural upbringing. All these things may be relevant, but God’s call to Moses begins with a very different appeal, an appeal to identity, empathy, and compassion.
The Lord says to Moses: “I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt. I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed, I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them from the Egyptians, and bring them up out of that land, to a good and broad land , a land flowing with milk and honey. … The cry of the Israelites has now come to me; I have also seen how the Egyptians oppress them. So come, I will send you to Pharaoh to bring my people, the Israelites out of Egypt.
Maybe the most important qualification for serving God is not bravery, not superior intelligence, or conflict resolution skills, but the ability to hear the cries of those who are suffering. Maybe this is the crucial starting place for each of us as we consider our individual calls to discipleship. None of us can save the whole world, but each of us can listen, with God, for those who need healing, rescuing, advocacy, companionship, encouragement, food, shelter, freedom. If you are called by God, as I believe all of us are—your call comes not as a prize of elevated status, but instead as a summons to listen, and then to respond with God, to the cries of the world.
Surprisingly, Moses, that great leader, replies as you or I would almost certainly reply: “Who am I? “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh to bring my people out of Egypt?” (I am only one person, and I am in trouble with the authorities, and what makes you think I can change the tide of history?)
“Who am I,” we think, while our Congress bickers its way into partisan deadlock. “Who am I,” we ask, when one fourth of our North Country high school students fail to graduate. “Who am I?” we wonder, when Kenyans and Somalis starve by the tens of thousands? “Who am I?” we mutter, while our national political life descends into dysfunctional name-calling.
And God’s simple, devastating answer is “Get moving, stand up to injustice, and I will be with you.”
Whatever we attempt in the name of God, and whatever we accomplish in loving response to the suffering of the world around us, will happen because we offer our unique talents and energies in partnership with divine wisdom and grace. If even Moses could not do it alone, certainly we cannot. God’s call to Moses reminded him of those who had gone before him: Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Although each of us has a unique destiny, the community of faith offers mutual support and course correction for our journeys.
“I will be with you.” reminds us, it is not about us; it’s about offering ourselves to larger agendas, greater causes. And of course the great paradox and delight of faith, is that when we forget to keep track of our own scorecards, our accomplishments, our GPA… that is when we make the greatest contributions. Jesus revealed the same truth by his passion and his words: “Those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”
As I return from a season of rest and study and reflection on the life of our church, and my life as a minister, I confess that Moses and Jesus continue to challenge me deeply. I want to find my life, in the course of giving it away. And yet a part of me would be quite content to retreat into safe anonymity. Just like Moses, I am asking: “Who am I? What good can I possibly do against all that is wrong in the world?”
It helps me to remember that even Moses got tired; that the slaves he freed often complained and grumbled in their wilderness wandering, and that sometimes he was angry even with God. But he kept going. He kept on listening for the cries of God’s beloved, suffering people. And he kept trusting God’s promise of accompanying grace.
So here is what I pray for, for myself and for our church: I want us to blaze without being consumed. I want us to live with awe and wonder, as we discover holy ground beneath our feet, and in our neighborhoods, and in our schools, and nursing homes, and workplaces. I want us to find ways of balancing passion and rest, empathy and celebration, so that we can hear and respond to the cries of those who suffer. I want us never to forget that the source of our strength is not our own talents—as varied and impressive as they may be-- but rather the promise of God to be with us on the journey, and the promise of Jesus, that we will find Life, in the very act of giving it away.
I want us to blaze, without being consumed. Amen.