February 3, 2013
It is always such a joy to preach here at 8th Day because you are a community that thinks and feels from the heart. You ask the deep questions and deserve deep responses. So I also am intimidated to preach here for those very same reasons. Will what I have to offer be enough for what we need to hear? I’m glad to know you’re listening from the heart; I will try to speak from the heart as well.
I’ve learned a few things about myself this week, one of which is that nothing makes household chores look quite so alluring as having a sermon to prepare. The “Big Project” hovers over me, accompanies me every moment, yet countless picayune tasks poke into my line of vision, take on a certain glow, and I absolutely cannot resist the inclination tode-clutter the drawers of the dining room buffet, or rearrange the knickknacks, or dust the hidden corners; oh, and that “mixed-up-batch-of-stuff” drawer—the “junk drawer” there to the left of the sink, you know the one I mean—suddenly cries out to be dumped and sorted, all the nails and bits of wire and broken rubber bands put into proper order; and while I’m downstairs, I’m noticing that it might make more sense to move that big arm chair over there, in that other corner of the living room…. You get the idea. I used to think I was just procrastinating, but now I think I’m bargaining with God. “Look at all I’m doing,” I am saying. “I’m taking care of so many small things. Would it be too much to ask you to take care of the Big Project?” So, we’ll see how God did…and at least you can be glad with me that Andrew’s House is now in pretty good order.
Some of what I did was to finish putting away Christmas decorations. Now before you mock me, let me tell you what I learned in my research for this sermon: the last day of Christmas, contrary to popular custom, was actually yesterday! On the 40th day after the celebration of Christmas, which for us is February 2, more formal branches of the church celebrate the Feast of the Presentation, also called Candlemas, marking the “presentation of Jesus” in the temple, thus completing the nativity season.
Remember that story? How Joseph and Mary, following Mosaic law, took Jesus back to Jerusalem because every firstborn son was to be dedicated to God. They also offered two young pigeons, or doves, which was the required sacrifice for the poor. Simeon sings to God, “Now your servant may die in peace because your word has been fulfilled. My own eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the sight of all people, a light to reveal you to the nations [some sources say to the Gentiles] and for the glory of your people Israel.” And then he tells Mary that she too will be pierced by a sword. (She too?! What must Mary and Joseph have thought?!) And then the old prophet Anna adds her own proclamation that this infant is the redemption of Jerusalem. Quite a presentation day!
Because Jesus was described as the light of the world, the feast was celebrated with a procession of candles and came to be known as the Candle Mass. ALL the candles to be used during the coming year, both at church and at home, are blessed at this feast. There were even some superstitions that developed, including the belief that if you didn’t take down your Christmas decorations by Feb. 2 the remaining holly and berries would kill the person who was responsible! Also interesting was the tradition that this was the day when weather patterns could be predicted. The remainder of winter would be the opposite of whatever the weather was like on Candlemas, Feb. 2. I guess they didn’t have groundhogs in that region.
The Feast of the Presentation was first called by the Eastern Church “The Encounter.” I like that. Christ—the light of the nations—this infant-yet-Messiah—was celebrated not in an observation but in an encounter.
So, yesterday the church celebrated “The Encounter”—40-day-old Jesus, being presented in the temple—and then today we have the scripture marking the beginning of his public ministry—when Jesus presented himself. Jesus in the temple, at a point of beginning—and Jesus in the temple, at a point of beginning.
In the Temple, Jesus read the ancient promise of Isaiah that oppression would be lifted and the blind would see and the lame would dance and a time of Jubilee would come in all the land. And he pronounced it to be NOW. In a way, Jesus was in what Zen practitioners call “beginner’s mind.” Reaching back to the old, old story, and presenting now a new, new story. The Church of the Saviour has an old story—a tradition, a way of being in community that tries to serve the common good—and we have the beginning of a story that God wants to tell through us now. Jesus, who had been dedicated to God in the Temple, who had grown up under the tutelage of the Temple, who was then baptized outside the Temple, was now back in the Temple dedicating himself to a mission that had been set years earlier. A mission not only for the people right there, where he had grown up—but for outsiders, too, just as Elijah and Elisha were sent to outsiders. What God will do in and through us is for us and yet not only for us. The people weren’t very pleased with this interpretation and turned on him, driving him out of their town. They would have killed him if they could have gotten their hands on him…but he was already on the move, seeking those who could hear.
This mission of healing and release, he says, is now fulfilled. Did he mean in kairos time—the kind of time that has no answer for the question “When?”—there is fulfillment? Do you think there has been fulfillment of the promises Jesus made? Where? Is he just another politician making promises that aren’t fulfilled? Jesus says, “Those who have eyes to see, let them see. Those who have ears to hear, let them hear.”
Zen writers say that “in beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in ‘expert’s mind’ there are few.” When I cannot see with the eyes of faith, I am trapped in expert’s mind which demands tangible evidence, graphs and charts showing that things aren’t as bad today as they were yesterday. In expert’s mind, the more I know, the less I probably understand. The fact that Jeremiah did not feel like much of an expert was probably his greatest qualification. He was just a boy, or at least a young man, when he heard God calling him to help fulfill God’s plan. And I expect Jeremiah wasn’t the only one who was uncertain about his qualifications; I wonder how the larger community accepted his youthful leadership?
I wonder because I experience us, too, having some degree of difficulty in welcoming young people’s leadership. What if we started inviting young adults not only to be in our circles and learn from us—until they, too, are middle-aged and “ready” or, as Gordon used to say, until they are adequately disillusioned—but encouraging them to speak up now, to lead now, to get disillusioned right along with us, now—and to find hope together, now. “Beginner’s mind” is not just a young person’s mind, of course; it is available to all who want to live in the lightheartedness of letting go of right answers, who want to learn to walk in the dark alongside others who are pretty much in the dark, too. Its one requirement is to have the humility to look foolish—and most likely to be foolish, too.
There is a beginner’s mind, a fresh and hopeful heart, in each of us, regardless of our age. But we must tend this flame, and fan the embers for one another when we notice it waning. We must keep an eye out for each other, recognizing intruders among us—fear and greed and erratic temper and a clutching spirit and whatever else threatens community. We must love each other enough to stand against whatever might rob us of our joy and steadfastness. And we must say YES to whatever sings a bright note of hope within us, nurturing the place of our passion and calling.
Several years ago there was a YouTube piece that is still being downloaded today. Maybe many of you have already seen it, but I’ve decided to take the time to show it to you. It is a short talk given at the United Nation’s Earth Summit in 1992 by a girl named Severn Suzuki. When Severn was 9 years old, she and some other kids in Canada started an organization to draw attention to environmental problems, and when she was 12, they raised money to be able to attend the UN’s meetings. She was given a time slot to speak—and when the talk went viral, she was called “the girl who silenced the world for six minutes.” I think it’s worth our spending six minutes to hear it now:
Her speech stirred people, I think, because she calls us to “beginner’s mind” where there are no preconceived answers, where admitting we don’t know which way to go marks a new beginning. And yet, interviewed a decade later about that speech and the lack of action on behalf of Creation in the years following, she admitted great disappointment. She said, “My confidence in the people in power and in the power of an individual’s voice to reach them has been deeply shaken.”
Yet today, 20 years later, she keeps on speaking and working in the environmental movement. Why does she keep on? Doesn’t the world’s lack of action invalidate her passion and calling? Or does God somehow use our passion and calling regardless of how things appear to be going in chronos time? Might God be working on a Big Project while we are busy on all our small ones? Could our small projects actually be God’s Big Project?
But then I heard a nagging voice saying, Is it enough? Is it enough to be aware of areas of great need—and even to respond in our small ways—if what we are able to do isn’t going to make a tangible, measurable difference? Yes, MY confidence in the people in power is shaken—it turns out they are as impotent as I, but not able to confess their powerlessness and their need for a new beginning. And even more, the core foundations of my life are shaken, too. IS God working on a Big Project? Do our small “de-cluttering” tasks make any real difference? WILL God hold us steady? WILL “all things be well”?
These questions began to nag at me more and more as I pondered this sermon. How could I come here and speak of something that I am both believing and doubting at the same time? Faith in God’s providential care of all creation, yes, I believe it—and yet I see a world of immense need that God does not appear to be taking care of very well through us. Our little efforts don’t seem to be enough. So I took my dilemma to Gordon yesterday. The foundations of his own life are being shaken right now as he works with this closing phase of life, so I thought he might have some wisdom and perspective to offer me. I told him I was mulling over a sermon for 8th Day and was getting terribly stuck. I told him the scriptures I was studying—about Jeremiah being called out of his comfort zone and Jesus presenting himself in the Temple, standing alongside the moment that Jesus was presented in the Temple as an infant. How the people in both scenes had hope beyond hope that this one is The One. All of God’s plans for us were now being fulfilled.
“So what I’m struggling with,” I said, “is that I believe this—I believe that Jesus IS our hope beyond hope—and yet there is such a looming GAP between the vision that God gave us in Jesus and what we are able actually to live. Even Jesus pronounced a fulfillment that hasn’t come in tangible ways. Was he just being lofty, or did he mean it? Where IS it? I ‘believe’ we’re called to be signs of hope, to learn to see with new eyes and hear with new ears; I ‘believe’ that all things are being reconciled in Christ—and yet…and yet…how can I say I believe it when I also see how “not enough” I am—we are—for the work at hand.
“I can’t just go to 8th Day again and do what I usually do—name some of the ways we’re off-track—they know all of that already—and then name some of the places we see hope. I want to be able to say the Potter’s House is one of those places, I want to say the Festival Center and Dayspring and all of the missions are signs of hope, but it feels like right now all of these places are struggling and in some ways, dying. Maybe if we can be faithful to the dying, we’ll find the hope, but I don’t see how it’s going to happen. Will we be able to let go so that God can to do a new thing? What’s God trying to say to us now?”
We just sat there without words for awhile, and then, thinking I should relieve him of the pressure of needing to give me some sort of answer, I said, “It’s okay if you can’t answer, but I wish I knew what the Big Message is. I feel like there are lots of little pieces, but I don’t know the Big Message.”
Silence again. And then he said, “That’s your answer.”
“What’s my answer? I said, I don’t know the answer.”
“That’s the answer. The Big Message is that you don’t know the answer. You don’t know what the Big Message is. Because the Big Message is that we can know nothing, we can will nothing, we can do nothing.” How things will happen, we don’t know. When and where and with whom it all will happen, we don’t know. If we struggle too much to KNOW, to pin it down, we miss it. So, according to Gordon, Not knowing is the Big Message.
When we know nothing, we are in beginner’s mind. We are freed not to be an expert, but just to be on the way together, to give what we can give, whatever our current condition. We can begin again, each day, each hour. We will have little to defend, nothing to prove. Gordon then said, “We’re going to always have trouble putting words to it, but we can’t let that stop us from saying it again and again.”
So that’s what I have to offer today: The hope that we will be open to “beginner’s mind,” hearing Jesus again for the first time, hearing our own points of passion again for the first time, hearing one another again for the first time, speaking courageously beyond the limits of our imagination, letting ourselves be spoken through when we run out of words—and letting ourselves run out of words more often. Maybe Dayspring and the Potter’s House can be our places to practice publicly and to invite the young and the old and the passionate and the weary and the nonreligious—anyone except the experts!—oh, well, let them come, too! We have a Big Message to share—that there is joy in not knowing, in finding a way forward without having all the answers, in doing what we can.
Thanks be to you, O God,
who steadies our steps.
You are our only hope.
We put our trust in you. AMEN.