Reading at Opening of service: Winter, Frank Hall
Suddenly, or so it seems,
Snow, or the threat of a storm —
Then waking to see the new snow
Fresh, clean, marveling at the whitewashed world; the snow
Covering everything, painting bare brown branches
Evergreens etched in white
Earth, with a soft, silent winter blanket.
Winter coat, woolen hat, gloves and scarf
Bundled up to go out into the crisp winter air
Walking along the wind-whipped shore – brisk and bracing
Sounds of gulls crying, waiting for low tide
Scavenging for clams, crabs and mussels –
Meals fit for a king.
Then, home again, glad to be inside looking out
Sitting with hot chocolate and
The morning paper, with the Sunday book reviews
Delivered on Saturday, listing the ten-best-books of the year,
Ten sure-fire Christmas gifts.
And some smiles with this week’s New Yorker cartoons
And memories of other winters, other storms,
Aware of the long winter sleep to come.
The sermon title comes from Mary Oliver’s poem:
My work is loving the world.
Here the sunflowers, there the hummingbird —
equal seekers of sweetness.
Here the quickening yeast; there the blue plums.
Here the clam deep in the speckled sand.
Are my boots old? Is my coat torn?
Am I no longer young, and still not half-perfect? Let me
keep my mind on what matters,
which is my work,
which is mostly standing still and learning to be
The phoebe, the delphinium.
The sheep in the pasture, and the pasture.
Which is mostly rejoicing, since all ingredients are here,
which is gratitude, to be given a mind and a heart
and these body-clothes,
a mouth with which to give shouts of joy
to the moth and the wren, to the sleepy dug-up clam,
telling them all, over and over, how it is
that we live forever.
~ Mary Oliver ~
Today is the feast of the epiphany, or Theophany, meaning ‘vision of God.’ What’s your vision of God?
The ancient story says that twelve days after the birth of Jesus, three magi arrived at the stable with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh…or was it three kings…or three wise men? Good mythology is flexible. Take your pick.
There’s a passage in the book of Psalms about Kings bringing gifts to the awaited Messiah. That, apparently, is the source of the three kings version.
The Magi refers to the priestly caste of Zoroastrianism – they paid particular attention to the stars and were known for their work with astrology. At that time it was regarded as a science…from the word Magi we get the word magic.
I prefer the three-wise men version.
Wisdom, of course, is different from knowledge; it’s not about information – it’s about understanding. Information is passed from one having it to another who wants it – we live in an inflated information age.
Wisdom, however, cannot be passed from one who has it to another who wants it. Wisdom is a function of experience, and insight, or intuition.
The Wise Men in the ancient story left the comfort of ‘what they knew,’ the comforts of home, as it were; the decided to explore the possibility that a child born in the humble surroundings of the stable is the long-awaited Messiah — the manifestation of God they were looking for.
As a religious humanist, my understanding of the theological significance of the feast of the epiphany – the revelation of God in the baby Jesus – pulls the Divine down to earth…in a babe in a manger…in a stable… a building for the shelter, protection and feeding of domestic animals, especially sheep and cattle, from whom we get wool for warm clothing and milk for our nourishment, poetic symbols: food, clothes and shelter – basic needs.
The Indo-European root of the word stable is from the Latin, stabulum, standing place. So the poet, Mary Oliver, says, “Let me keep my mind on what matters, which is my work, which is mostly standing still.”
The Wise Men traveled a long way to simply stand still, so they could learn to ‘be astonished.’
We’ve forgotten how to be astonished. Someone said, “We are the only people who think themselves risen from savages; everyone else believes they descended from gods.”
Max Weber, the sociologist-philosopher considered the architect of modern social science, used the phrase “enchanted garden,” suggesting that the collective mind set thought of the world as an ‘enchanted garden’ that became disenchanted in the modern world. I think it was he who said that very young children don’t need to be told fairy tales because mere life itself is interesting enough…or something to that effect.
Thus the poet’s use of the phrase ‘standing still and learning to be astonished.’ Perhaps wisdom is the next step beyond information as knowledge…an epiphany.
Scrooge, you’ll remember, had an epiphany which was forced on him against his will by his visions in the night. Dickens pens this epiphany-like passage:
“He went to church, and walked about the streets, and watched the people hurrying to and fro, and patted children on the head, and questioned beggars, and looked down into the kitchens of houses, and up to the windows, and found that everything could yield him pleasure. He had never dreamed that any walk — that anything — could give him so much happiness.”
Huston Smith, in his inspiring book Beyond the Post-Modern Mind, says:
“To be unable to give oneself—to a person, a cause, the call of conscience, God, something—is to lack a capacity that is integral to being fully human. It is to be incapable of commitment.”
God is not completely understandable.
It’s easy to dismiss the old gods – they are quite literally unbelievable. You know perfectly well what I mean. But it’s the little epiphanies that matter – somehow they make us more loving – including the love of life, which may be the best explanation of what it means to love God.
Scrooge “…found that everything could yield him pleasure. He had never dreamed that any walk — that anything — could give him so much happiness.”
Part of our work, as Mary Oliver puts it, is to stand still and learn to be astonished. It’s all about those little epiphanies.
Mary Oliver has a poem about that:
in the pinewoods
in the moments between
and first light
came walking down the hill
and when they saw me
they said to each other, okay,
this one is okay,
let’s see who she is
and why she is sitting
on the ground like that,
so quiet, as if
asleep, or in a dream,
but, anyway, harmless;
and so they came
on their slender legs
and gazed upon me
not unlike the way
I go out to the dunes and look
and look and look
into the faces of the flowers;
and then one of them leaned forward
and nuzzled my hand, and what can my life
bring to me that could exceed
that brief moment?
For twenty years
I have gone every day to the same woods,
not waiting, exactly, just lingering.
Such gifts, bestowed,
can’t be repeated.
If you want to talk about this
come to visit. I live in the house
near the corner, which I have named
~ “The Place I Want To Get Back To” by Mary Oliver, from Thirst.
We’ll close with the title poem from her collection, Thirst
Another morning and I wake with thirst
for the goodness I do not have. I walk
out to the pond and all the way God has
given us such beautiful lessons. Oh Lord,
I was never a quick scholar but sulked
and hunched over my books past the hour
and the bell; grant me, in your mercy,
a little more time. Love for the earth
and love for you are having such a long
conversation in my heart. Who knows what
will finally happen or where I will be sent,
yet already I have given a great many things
away, expecting to be told to pack nothing,
except the prayers which, with this thirst,
I am slowy learning. Mary Oliver, Thirst,