Opening Words: “Lost” David Wagoner
Stand still. The trees ahead and bushes beside you
Are not lost. Wherever you are is called Here.
And you must treat it as a powerful stranger,
Must ask permission to know it and be known.
The forest breathes. Listen. It answers,
I have made this place around you,
If you leave it you may come back again, saying Here.
No two trees are the same to Raven.
No two branches are the same to Wren.
If what a tree or bush does is lost on you,
You are surely lost. Stand still the forest knows
Where you are. You must let it find you.
Sermon: “Subject to Change” October 7, 2001
It’s a strange title. At least I thought so. At first.
The editor our newsletter, Soundings, sent the usual email to remind me that I needed to submit my sermon title, two weeks in advance.
I thought to myself, “Who knows what’s going to happen in the next two weeks. Given what’s happened in the last two weeks, when I had to change my sermon from those I had announced.”
No matter what I put down as a sermon title, I knew it was ‘subject to change.’ Likely to change is probably closer to the reality we’ve been living with lately.
Once I’ve given a title to a sermon it rattles around in my head. When I’m taking a walk along Compo Beach, ideas come to me, based on the title I’ve chosen. I don’t write a sermon and then give it a title. When I grow up I hope to be able to do that- to write a sermon and then give it an appropriate title.
Come to think of it, I’ll probably never do that. But maybe. Who knows? We change. And that’s the point, and such a little point, such an obvious point, of this simple sermon.
The sermon I planned for September 16- which turned out to be the Sunday after September 11- I’d planned to talk about the diversity of religion in America, and the need for interfaith work and understanding- drawing on Diana Eck’s recent book, “A New Religious America.”
I had planned to talk about was the growth of Islam in America, and the lack of understanding about the Muslim faith–the third of the three Abrahamic faiths, and the broad fundamentalist, even fanatical brush with which the Muslims around the world have been painted.
The sermon for the following Sunday, in honor of the Jewish New Year, Rosh ha-Shanah, and Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, was to be about Jesus as a Jew, and wanted to tell you about a new Jesus book, “Rabbi Jesus,” which I read this summer. The writer of that book is an Episcopal priest, Bruce Chilton, and he is in the same open and liberal school as Bishop Spong, who has written extensively about the mistake many Christians make in taking the Biblical stories literally, and taking the later theological assertions like the virgin birth, and the trinity, literally.
Chilton paints a realistic portrait of Jesus as a practicing Jew, putting him in the context of the times in which he lived. Chilton gives us a warts-and-all, real-life, human portrait of Jesus. Emerson would have loved Chilton’s book as much as I did.
But those four planes were commandeered by men who had been preparing for years; men who had been welcomed to our homeland, like guests invited to dinner, and they desecrated the hospitality; they turned freedom into treachery.
Like the Biblical Cain who was filled with rage because God did not ‘have regard’ for his offering, so he killed his brother Abel, for whom God ‘had regard.’
You remember the story- it’s the oldest story of all: the first man born on the face of the earth in a natural way, killed the second born.
The story says, “So the Lord said to Cain, ‘Why are you angry and why has your countenance fallen. If you do well, will you not be accepted. And if you do not do well, sin is couching at the door; it’s desire is for you, but you must master it.”
Cain didn’t master it. His rage took over and he made a plan, a plot, and he said to his brother Abel, “Let us go out to the field.” And when they were in the field Cain rose up against his brother and killed him.
It was a murderous betrayal. The voice of God came to Cain and demanded, “Where is Abel, your brother?”
And Cain gave that infamous answer, “I do not know; am I my brother’s keeper?”
I discovered something in that old story this week: there’s no indication that Cain ever died. Each of the other characters in Genesis died, usually after a very long life, six, seven or even nine hundred years. But it never says that Cain died.
“Well,” you say, “he died in the flood.”
But I’ve read between the lines, like the Rabbis. There were two of every animal that got on that ark; but there were seven of the so-called ‘clean animals,’ the cleft footed animals, which gave Noah and his family something to eat during those forty days and nights of rain and flood.
Cain came on the ark disguised as a sheep! A wolf in sheep’s clothing, he walks the earth to this day! Which is to say, we still must contend with the kind of terrorist act that Cain committed against his unsuspecting brother Abel. He invited innocent Abel into the field, plotting his murder; and when they were in the field he killed his brother.
And the Lord said, ‘What have you done? The voice of your brother’s blood is crying to me from the ground. And now you are cursed from the ground, which has opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand. When you till the ground it shall no longer yield to you its strength; you shall be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth.”
The Lord put a mark on Cain. Cain became a fugitive, a refugee. He could not be killed. There’s no indication in the book of Genesis that Cain ever died. Each of the other characters died after so many hundreds of years; but of Cain there is no record of his having died.
So Cain walks the earth to this day, a fugitive, without a homeland; an assassin, a terrorist.
Adam and Eve, the story says, went back to the drawing board, and they had another son, whose name was Seth. And the descendents of Seth were Noah and his sons, Shem, Ham and Japheth.
“Noah was a righteous man, blameless in his generation; Noah walked with God.”
Just as folks are scrambling to learn about Islam, to understand the mind of the Muslim, the descendents of the Biblical Ishmael, who was also a wanderer, so are folks taking another look at their theology: who or what is God?
Last week Barbara ended her insightful sermon with the question put to her by her childhood friend, “What do you believe? You must believe something.”
The children are asking, “Why do they hate us?”
Cain represents rage- he was out-raged: “An act grossly offensive to decency, morality or good taste.” Cain is a symbol of the human capacity for evil, fueled by rage- a rage whose roots are in envy and pride, the deadliest of the so-called deadly sins.
Seth, and his more famous descendent, Noah, represent the potential for good. “Noah was a righteous man…he walked with God.”
These stories are part of the mythologies that inform Jews, Christians and Muslims- the Abrahamic religions.
The stories acknowledge our human potential for good and evil…creativity and destructiveness. The characters represent the various aspects of the human personality. The stories in this early collection are like our libraries with studies we call psychology, sociology, anthropology and theology.
My answer to Barbara’s friend’s question, then, is informed by these stories. Since they are intended to be stories about us- about what it means to be human- the references to God, and all the characters, point to aspects of ourselves; things in ourselves. God is the creative force that moves through us.
To say that Noah ‘walks with God,’ is another way of saying that we have the capacity for great good- even selfless acts, demonstrated on September 11 by firemen who entered the burning buildings, and by people on the plane that was taken down in Pennsylvania before it could reach its target.
Cain is Hitler; Stalin; Osama bin Laden. Cain is the human capacity for evil; but that capacity for evil can be overcome in each of us. We can become incapable of evil.
The stories in Genesis are filled with people who made choices, important decisions that were turning points in their lives and the lives of their descendents.
We are in these stories because we are making decisions that will determine the course of our own lives, our personal lives; and we are making decisions collectively that will determine the course of civilization on this fragile little planet of ours.
I got a very thoughtful letter the other day. The writer didn’t say that she was responding to Barbara’s question: So what do you believe? But it seemed like an answer. She wrote, in part (and I have her permission to share this with you- because it is, in essence, a letter written to you who are members of this congregation-w ho have helped to build it, and who work to sustain it. I’m simply your representative- your agent, if you will.)
My family has been attending the…church for about a year and a half. We moved here after living for 20 years in a loft in lower Manhattan. … We searched for a place that would make our children feel like they are part of a community, and to help reinforce our values, and we found it there.
One of my daughters asks me all the time, “Mom, what do you think God is? Or, “Do you believe in God?” In the process of answering her, I have had to start figuring out the answer for myself! I tell her that she doesn’t have to believe in God or a god, and that it’s different for each person. I tell her I feel a spiritual force in the presence of acts of love and kindness, when I feel connected to other people, and in nature, art, music, and even good food or a great joke! I also feel that special magic watching perennial flowers sprout from the ground each year in my garden or snipping fresh herbs; it has a very rejuvenating and healing power over me.
When my children asked the inevitable, difficult questions about the recent current events, I told them that there were a few crazy bad guys who died hurting other people, but think of all the heroic, generous, selfless people who are helping out, even risking their own lives to do so. But what a scary world to bring children into! It’s hard for me to tell them they’re safe when I don’t feel safe, but I lie outright and tell them they’re safe and sound anyway, and that it’s our job to protect them.
Every day I ask myself what really matters most to me in my life. Thank you for reminding me that the little things really do matter. In fact they are exactly the point. Seeing my children show compassion to a tiny ant, flash a mischievous smile at me, catch butterflies with their bare hands, demand a hug, misspell or mispronounce adorably, accomplish something on their own that they couldn’t do do before, outgrow a pair of pants seemingly overnight, make up a silly song. As I think I’ve heard you say, “That’s God enough for me.”
Yes, that is God enough. Compassion, butterflies, hugs, creativity and accomplishment, growing, changing, learning and living.
We heard about the heroes on the fourth plane. When they learned from husbands and wives what was going on- that the World Trade Center had been hit by hijacked planes- they gave their lives to prevent the terrorists from hitting yet another target…maybe the nation’s capital or the White House.
I didn’t know what would happen between the announcing of a sermon and this Sunday morning, so I titled the sermon ‘Subject to Change,’ and I realized how we are all subject to change: the change brought about by our ageing and experiences which take our innocence and leave us feeling the loss of idealism, the loss of a former religious faith, and so forth.
Barbara’s friend asked, “What do you believe, you must believe something.”
Whatever you believed before September 11 has changed in some big way, deep way, and some smaller ways.
Now what are you going to do? Can you carve something out of your grief? Will you become more cynical? Terrifying images that have been burnt into our brains; the planes crashing into the towers, then those enormous buildings collapsing, and other images too terrible to mention.
What collapsed with them? What has changed…lost?
I listened to Barbara’s sermon with appreciation and once again I struggled with John Murray’s theology- his assertion that all souls are saved after death.
Strange- as I thought about John Murray’s Universalism, I realized why they invented hell, and why they burned John Murray’s house to the ground for preaching against the idea of eternal punishment in a hell dominated by brimstone…the sulfur fumes…
For a moment, at least, I wished I could believe in a hell in which those misguided madmen who turned planes into guided missiles would spend eternity…or at least a million years or so…
I’m a Universalist, not because I believe that all souls are eventually reconciled to a loving god after death, but because I do not believe in the theological idea of hell.
I know, now, however, why some well-meaning theologians don’t want to lose the power of the fear of hell.
Story of change: Pandora
You may remember the story…from Greek Mythology: Pandora was the first woman. Prometheus, who had created men and provided them with reason…stole fire from heaven for them…Zeus created Pandora as his revenge on Prometheus for stealing fire from heaven… Zeus punished Prometheus by chaining him to a rock and had an eagle eat his liver…for eternity
Pandora was entrusted with a jar containing all the ills that could plague mankind. Zeus told her not to open the jar. Disobeying the order, she opened the jar, releasing all the evils of human life…
Hope alone remained inside the jar. We must not lose hope; on an individual level we hope for healing when we’re recovering from illness or surgery; we hope for direction when we feel lost; we hope for strength to carry on when we’ve been depressed; we hope for economic security when our livelihood has been threatened.
The American Dream is a dream of hope, not only for ourselves, as individuals–the dream can turn into a soul-shattering feeling of greed and entitlement. The collective dream we share is to feed the hungry children, to house those who are not adequately housed, to provide a decent education with competent, enthused teachers, and so forth. The dream is that we can share this great wealth and not have a few individuals take more than a just share.
When we say ‘with liberty and justice for all,’ this is what we mean, and that’s the dream that must not die. That’s the hope we share, and we have work to do, together, to keep that hope alive.