From Winter to Spring 2015
From Winter to Spring: Reading from Psalm 22: 25-31
I know this is a risky title for a sermon in Cleveland, even in May. I had to keep my eye on the weather forecast in case I had to change the title or explain it away. Spring came seemingly within a couple of days: first crocus, then daffodils, then tulips, then forsythia, magnolias and fruit trees and Lilacs! This sermon is like that: signs of spring, but all over the place. I’m sorry it is not as straightforward and linear as you are used to. Let me ask: do we experience each other differently in winter than we do in spring?
What lens should we use to look at the world? What perspective can we have? Pastor Roger Osgood’s quote from the Resurrection story in John’s Gospel vibrates in my memory: “On the first day of the week, while it was still dark…” resonates with me still, although Roger preached these words on Easter, giving us hope that while the news is dismal and dark like winter often is, there is the hope and joy of resurrection. We always think that our times are the worst and darkest times, but that of course is not true. The Gospels give plenty of hints at the turmoil and unrest of those New Testament days. It was still plenty dark. Even AFTER the resurrection, the followers of Jesus were keeping the doors and windows locked. And this is still the Easter season. Let me tell you a true story:
On my morning walk up Chadbourne Road in Shaker Heights just before dawn on April 29, 2015 (last Wednesday), I chanced to see two mallard ducks, a male and a female, walking up someone’s lawn toward his or her house! Although I have seen everything on my morning walks from skunks and raccoons to deer and even a coyote and a fox one day, I had never seen a pair of ducks. And in my mind, I imagined the female saying to the male: “Where are you taking me? Where the heck is the water? You DO know, I’m a duck, right? Do you think I fell in love with you because of your pretty feathers? I’m supposed to be swimming, NOT hiking!”
And I imagined the male’s reply: “Relax, honey! After the sun rises and we take to the air, you’ll not only see the lakes in Shaker, you’ll also see that GREAT lake out there, and it will bring tears to your eyes. But THIS is a perfect place to nest—not crowded, off the beaten path, and landscaped just how we like it!). This is such a good story. I’ve thought and thought how I could tie it in to this sermon.
Let me digress to talk about panic attacks for a little bit. I’m sure different people have different versions of them. Maybe someone has written a book entitled, “What flavor was your panic attack?” I used to get them. They are NOT fun. Part of their menace is the fear they will expose you for the coward you are (I learned there is a label for this, called “the imposter syndrome”), for the disabled person you are; when people have to wipe you off the floor after you’ve fainted, or gone to pieces and completely come apart. All right: mine weren’t THAT bad, but still, they are NOT fun.
So why don’t I have them now? Lots of reasons, I guess. Letting go of guilt, getting older and not caring so much what people think of me, putting on a layer of thicker skin? Learning that I had LOTS of company, and that LOTS of people walk through the valley of the shadow of death; even some celebrities have struggled with mental illness and profound depression. I think some people find relief in medication that changes their chemistry; others get therapy from a knowledgeable person (and certainly not all flavors of therapists are the same!). Aromatherapy works well (I used to carry a bottle that smelled like roses); and we shouldn’t snicker at the power of worry stones or some other talisman.
I think I got the most help from reading a book on tennis and panic attacks. Go ahead and Google tennis and panic attacks and you’ll be amazed at how many hits you get. There was something in there about NOT focusing on the panic feelings and on the sweating, trembling, heart racing, nauseous symptoms in your body, but letting them have their way while YOU concentrate on the details of that tennis game: the thwacking sound of the ball, the placement of your return, the feel of the handle.
In his blog for April 24 Rev. Cam Miller talks about how the media plays on our fears. It is so easy to panic about how things are going on this earth and in this country and in this city and in our families, even in our hearts. Barbara Brown Taylor, in Learning to Walk in the Dark, remarks on the media’s propensity to search for anything evil and sordid and then play the video showing its gruesome detail over and over, so we soon get the impression that EVERYONE is evil and that’s all there IS but evil. If we see one child being abused over and over, we can quickly get the impression that we should be very afraid for all of our children, keep them home, don’t let them outside after dark so they never see the stars.
At that sustainability salon at Ursuline College that I mentioned at the communion table last week, the professor (who is Jewish and whose name is Dr. Elizabeth Meacham) quoted from a book on sustainability that wanted us to focus on greed and selfishness as the causes for much of what is wrong on this earth. This was an approach wholeheartedly adopted by some major religions: focus on sin, tell people where they are going to end up unless they convert and maybe allow just a twinge of regret for all of those millions of people who grew up in non-Christian nations and families and tribes, because they were all going to hell.
Rachel Held Evans, in her newly published book, Searching for Sunday, remarks that she began to realize in her youthful zeal that she seemed more interested in saving people from hell than God did! (that is, the God she was told about).
Instead of focusing on greed and selfishness, the sustainability professor taught me a new Hebrew word, shmita (it means “release”). I had never heard the word before, just the concept. It comes right out of the book of Leviticus (25:2-7). It refers to the Sabbath of rest that the Torah requires we give the land every seventh year. You allow it to rest; give it a sabbatical, and so render its future productivity sustainable!
Then this professor pointed out a book on sustainability entitled Blessed Unrest by Paul Hawken. Instead of focusing on greed and selfishness, this researcher collected the names of all of the people and organizations that were doing positive things and promoting sustainability (he was up to 130,000 in 2006 when he addressed a group called Bioneers).
And here’s what Paul Hawken said to our future generation in a commencement address at Portland University three years later, in 2009:
“There is invisible writing on the back of the diploma you will receive, and in case you didn’t bring lemon juice to decode it, I can tell you what it says: You are Brilliant, and the Earth is Hiring. The earth couldn’t afford to send recruiters or limos to your school. It sent you rain, sunsets, ripe cherries, night blooming jasmine, and that unbelievably cute person you are dating. Take the hint. And here’s the deal: Forget that this task of planet-saving is not possible in the time required. Don’t be put off by people who know what is not possible. Do what needs to be done, and check to see if it was impossible only after you are done.
[He continues:] When asked if I am pessimistic or optimistic about the future, my answer is always the same: If you look at the science about what is happening on earth and aren’t pessimistic, you don’t understand the data. But if you meet the people who are working to restore this earth and the lives of the poor, and you aren’t optimistic, you haven’t got a pulse. What I see everywhere in the world are ordinary people willing to confront despair, power, and incalculable odds in order to restore some semblance of grace, justice, and beauty to this world. The poet Adrienne Rich wrote, “So much has been destroyed I have cast my lot with those who, age after age, perversely, with no extraordinary power, reconstitute the world.” There could be no better description. Humanity is coalescing. It is reconstituting the world, and the action is taking place in schoolrooms, farms, jungles, villages, campuses, companies, refugee camps, deserts, fisheries, and slums.”
We say: God is saving the world.
The Professor (Dr. Elizabeth Meacham) asked us to check out the website whose address is 350.org for an example of countless people in 188 countries who are working on the issue of carbon dioxide emission (we are at 400 parts per million, going up 2 ppm each year, needing to reduce to under 350 ppm to sustain our life). Isn’t that more productive than focusing on greed and selfishness? Will we make the road by walking, as McLaren advises, by focusing on our sins and our guilt or by focusing on what we are doing and what we can do and will do to bring good into the world. Focus on spring.
Systems theory requires us to look at the world differently. We have to see it as all inter-related. Does it mean anything to you to be told that your body came from the stars? We can look at the earth and all of its creatures as things to be dominated (Genesis) and exploited (if they die, we die; if we die, they thrive), OR we can look at the earth and ourselves as an evolving creation whose futures are inextricably related—what’s good for them is good for us (but not necessarily vice-versa, since it takes what we call nature, eons to evolve, and our technology enables us to turn on a dime in geological terms).
The ducks I saw are not cynical: they are finding nesting sites in suburban Cleveland!
The reason I am so enamored of systems theory is that I think Paul of Tarsus “got it” some 2,000 years ago. He didn’t buy this dualistic approach to reality so beloved by the philosopher Plato. On the contrary, he knew that we are all connected through Christ, and that differences melt away. And that is why we can rightly say that the goodness we see in atheists, the medications and perfumes and books that help us through panic attacks and the ducks we encounter on morning walks are all sacred, and all gifts of God. Watch “Mind Walk” again; it’s on YouTube. Look at all that spring has brought.
Again, Jesus showed us the way. Do you know how that Psalm 22 that we read the last verses of BEGINS? “My God, My God, why have you abandoned me?” Barbara Brown Taylor writes about a boy named Jacque Lusseyran, who had sight until he was seven years old when an accident destroyed BOTH of his eyes. Instead of sending him to a school for the blind in Paris, France, his parents never pitied him, his mother learned Braille with him and bought him a Braille typewriter, with the result that he writes in his memoir entitled And There Was Light an amazing discovery he made: that in his blindness, there was light: “I could not see the light of the world anymore. Yet the light was still there…I only had to receive it…The source of light is not in the outer world…The light dwells where life also dwells: within ourselves” (Taylor, p. 103 f.). In his winter, there was spring. And then she writes a line that I read only after I had a first draft of this sermon, but which sums the whole thing up: “There is a light that shines in the darkness that is only visible there” (p. 108, emphasis mine).
This reminds me of my daughter Jeannine’s experience in the theater group at Shaker Heights H.S. They used to practice with their eyes closed moving around the stage and “feeling” each other (without touching) in the dark. Just as some people who are deaf do NOT want a cochlear implant because they fear hearing would rob them of their sense of sight and other senses, so some people feel that those who wrote the stories about blind people demanding that Jesus cure them, were people who were NOT blind. Otherwise, they would have realized that being blind offers a kind of sight that most of us who see (are sighed) no longer have.
An edgy online service called “Pulpit Fiction” calls one of today’s readings, 1 John 4:7-24, a “dartboard…because if you printed it out and threw a dart at it, whatever verse you hit, it’s golden.” The reading is about God being love. But how do we talk about that to people who are in pain, who are drowning in sorrow because of worry, illness or death?
The answer might be by remembering how Psalm 22 starts—with abandonment. “The way up is the way down,” one of my favorite authors who shall be nameless, writes. Going into the pain, feeling the darkness (or the winter, if you will), sitting there a while, might be necessary before we can get up, reach out to someone who Is willing to help, stand up, and feel the sun on our face. We are the female mallard, being led, walking in the grass with no water in sight, but willing to follow to a nesting place.
Even if Jesus were praying psalm 22 on the cross, it didn’t have a happy ending. He died. Things don’t always have a happy ending. I know many of us are consoled by repeating the mantra: “Everything happens for a reason.” But for those of us who can’t figure out what that reason is, and see only the results of the earthquake, the ruins and the bodies, it’s okay. It’s okay to sit beneath that cross, to “abide with him,” to exist in silence for a while, to let the sobs come out. As Barbara Brown Taylor puts it: new life starts in the dark (p. 129). From winter to spring. Don’t panic! Concentrate on the flowers, the signs that the earth is being reborn, recreated.
After a terrible earthquake, we are soon able to see the aid workers, the incredible acts of generosity and courage. We rejoice with each person pulled out of the rubble, even though so many are gone from this earth. We feel the connection we have with all who are suffering, imprisoned, thirsty, hungry, falsely accused, and so on and so on. We find light in the darkness, even shades and colors like Jacques Lusseyran did. We will GET what Jesus was trying to tell his followers so many years go: you are my beloved community. You are connected through me to the divine. You are one body. May God let us and all those suffering feel his/her presence. Let them and let us feel, that even in winter, we have discovered spring. Amen.