August 13th – David Good – with audio
Isaiah 11: 1-3, 6-9
Romans 12: 9-13
Matthew 19: 13-15
REFLECTIONS ON A STILL LIFE
(ON FINDING THE L KEY, A LUNCH BUCKET, THE MYTH OF SYSYPHUS, A TEQUILA COMMUNION, PADDINGTON BEAR AND RUSTIC STEPS)
Today’s sermon probably could fall under the “Self-Help” category. Which is rather ironic as I confess I’ve always been rather contemptuous of that genre.
I’ve always found it to be overly narcissistic and self-referential, thinking that there are bigger and more important issues that need to be addressed. Plus, the titles of such books are frequently too precious and corny, and if you read the books they rarely deliver on what they promise.
In fairness, some self-help books actually do have some integrity and merit, and if truth be known, they’ve been a part of our progressive theology for long, long time.
Horace Bushnell, for example for whom Bushnell Hall and Bushnell Park are named was a congregational minister up in Hartford who is sometimes referred to as the father of Christian Education. He would argue that nurture is at least as important as nature.
In the Gospel of John, it says, “we have the power to become children of God.” In other words, being a child of God is something we can work on; we’re all a “work in progress” as we say.
Likewise, John Wesley spoke of “going on to perfection”, not in the sense that any of us ever can be perfected, but given the right kind of nurture, by others and by ourselves, we can, little by little, become more like the children of God we were created to be. Wesley created a system or a method by which incrementally we could make progress toward that goal of Self-fulfillment or Soul-Realization. Thus was coined the name of that denomination, “Methodism.”
These ideas are deeply rooted in the Renaissance and Enlightenment philosophy.
One of my favorites in that tradition was an Italian philosopher by the name of Pico Della Mirandola. In his essay, “On the Dignity of Man”, he says,
Thou art the molder and maker of thyself; thou mayest sculpt thyself into whatever shape thou dost prefer. Thou Canst grow downward into the lower natures which are brutes.
Thou canst again grow upward from thy soul’s reason into the Higher natures which are divine…
Let then a certain holy ambition invade the mind, so that we may not be content with mean things but may aspire to the highest things and strive with all our forces to attain them:
For if we will to, we can…
Let us compete with the angels in dignity and glory.
I don’t know about you, but I would hate to lose that Renaissance philosophy. Given all the very noticeable failures or even the depravity of the human spirit, and God knows, we don’t have to look too far to see such evidence that would leave us totally despaired, paralyzed by hopelessness, but as for me, I’m tired of the cynicism of this age. I think we need any and all reminders of the capacities of the human spirit. We need reminders that yes, we were “fearfully made, but also wonderfully made”, that there are dimensions of the human spirit widely, even universally unexplored, that each one of does indeed have the power to become “children of God.” Maybe there is; maybe there isn’t a “method” by which we can make incremental changes, but I do believe in that philosophy. I believe that we are each one of us God’s greatest gift to the world, and if we want the world to become a better place, a good place to start is with ourselves.
The great psychologist, Robert Jay Lifton said in one of his books, “We live by images…”
I can’t claim to understand exactly what he meant by this, but for me, it’s a reminder that some of us, if not all of us, need images or pictures to remind us of our true identities. In their use of icons, I suspect that our Roman Catholic and Orthodox friends know, perhaps instinctively, what this means. For me, these icons or images don’t have to be of the usual or traditional variety but anything that reminds us of where we are, who we are and what we want to become.
For each of us those images will be different, and so in this rather unusual collage or “Still Life” that I have assembled on the communion table, I offer these “Reflections on a Still Life” only in the hope that you might put together your own “Still Life.” What are the images or pictures that remind you of your own true humanity and the work and prayers that need to be done to reach that goal?
“Let us compete with the angels in dignity and glory.”
So, here we go. On finding the L Key. On the communion table and on the front cover of your bulletin, you’ll see a photograph of an Olivetti typewriter, and if you look closely, you’ll see that it’s missing the “D” key. The typewriter in this photograph is similar to one that Corinne brought over from Aberdeen, Scotland when we were married, and it was on this typewriter that I wrote most of my early sermons here in Old Lyme.
Where the “D” key was supposed to be, there was a sharp metal spike, and so I found to my bemusement, that almost unconsciously, I would avoid using that key, which meant that words like “devil” and “demonic” and “damnation” were avoided, which was fine with me as they weren’t really a part of my theology anyway, and if and when I did need to use the “D” key, sometimes, the sharp spike would draw blood. Suggestive, perhaps, of how all sermons should be written in blood!
Anyway, we long ago donated that typewriter to the White Elephant Sale. (I’m still awaiting my $2000 tax deduction!) I had long since forgotten about the challenges of that portable typewriter until this last winter when it was discovered that I have what is called Polyneuropathy which adversely affected the ulnar nerve. The outward manifestation of this was that I woke up one morning to find that the outside fingers on my right hand no longer “cooperated,” shall we say.
One of my first concerns was what impact this would have on my ability to type. (It also meant I would have to give up my hopes of becoming the next 3rd baseman for the New York Yankees.)
Now, I don’t know how many millions of times I’ve used a typewriter, but I would be hard pressed to tell you where each of the keys is, but somehow, our fingers know where they are. Of course, it’s not really the fingers, but another dimension of the mind. It’s like Stephen Curry and Lebron James and their jump shots. If you asked them the mechanics of what they do and if self-consciously they tried to show you how it works, chances are they’d miss their shots. But it’s truly a thing of beauty to watch them when they’re “in the zone”, no longer thinking about the mechanics but sinking one basket after another.
It’s sometime called “muscle memory” and I’d like to suggest that it’s at least suggestive for the Christian education of our children. I want our children to “practice the presence of God” as Brother Lawrence would say, I want them to practice acts of love and kindness such that it becomes for them like Muscle Memory for the Soul, such that regardless of what challenges they may face in life, I want them always to be able to find their way to that all important “L” key.
If you look at the keyboard, you’ll see that the “L” Key is on the far right and would ordinarily be reached by the ring finger on your right hand.
Now, missing the “D” key is one thing, but not having use of the “L key” is catastrophic for us all. Any preacher knows that one should hit that “L key” as often as possible, for of all the many words, too many words we preachers use, nothing is more important than that little word “love” – love for God, love for ourselves, love for our fellow human beings, indeed love for all Creation underscores how important that L key is.
Back in the first century, Rabbi Hillel said anything and everything that needs to be said about God and Humanity could be said and said very simply, standing on one leg – “Love God and love your neighbor as you love yourself.” That’s it. All the other creeds and laws and by-laws and theologies and systematic theologies might be helpful commentaries and footnotes, but everything that is essential can be said while standing on one leg.
Love God and love your neighbor as you love yourself.
The first time I tried to type after my surgery, I discovered something rather interesting. When I tried to use the “L” key, I looked down and saw that it wasn’t the usual finger that was doing the work, but rather, unwittingly, unconsciously or subconsciously, it was my middle finger reaching over to hit the key, as if to say, “don’t worry little buddy, I’ve got your back.”
This tells me that there are capacities to the human spirit, reservoirs of resilience and tenacity that would be good for all of us to tap. When knocked down or knocked back or knocked out by life’s vicissitudes, there’s always another way to that “L key.”
Of course, I didn’t need my fingers or a typewriter to figure this out. This is something I learned from many of you. Over the years, I have been astounded by how so many of you have found your way, quite miraculously, to the L key. Despite overwhelming personal tragedy and grief, despite the loss of your children, some debilitating illness or rejection, I have seen how time and time again, those who have suffered so much, metaphorically speaking, have “found their way to the L Key.
And in doing so, please never forget. In the love and kindness and courage you exemplify, you are the curriculum of this church. When children see your Love in all of its wonderful manifestations, that then becomes a part of their own “muscle memory” for the soul.
The next item in my Still Life is actually 3 items – a lunch bucket, a copy of Albert Camus’ book, The Myth of Sisyphus and a bottle of Tequila. I wager this may be the first time that a bottle of Tequila has been on this table.
It may be trite; it may be a truism, but it’s a truth we too often forget – that our failures can sometimes be our best teachers.
Now, when we preachers start confessing our sins, some understandably, given my profession’s propensity for such sins, automatically expect to hear a juicy Jimmy Swaggert kind of confession.
My failure was not about a wild night that started with a bottle of Tequila. Actually, my sin was far more egregious than that. If Paul Tillich is right that Sin is not any particular thing we do but more a state of being in which we’re separated from someone else, separated or alienated from God or separated from our true identities, then I am guilty of sin, to be sure.
Back when I was in college, I worked as a laborer for a construction crew in Indianapolis. My labor foreman or ramrod, as he was also called, was a Mexican American by the name of Prezzy. Perhaps because of Prezzy there were a number of other Mexican Americans as well. Whether they were legal or illegal immigrants, that was not even a question that was asked in those days.
For whatever reason, Prezzy took a liking to me, and during our half hour lunch breaks, he would take my lunch bucket and throw out my bologna sandwiches and share some of his tacos with me instead.
I would sit with Prezzy and the other Mexican Americans in an old beat up car with an 8 track playing Mariachi music full blast, and yes, every now and then, someone would pass around a bottle of tequila. It was only a half hour lunch, and it wasn’t as if anyone was trying to get drunk; no, it was more like…. More like a Tequila communion.
Well, after several weeks of this, I started bringing a book with me to work, The Myth of Sisyphus by Albert Camus. And so while the rest of the crew was in Prezzy’s car eating their lunch, I sat on a pile of 2 X 4’s and read what I could of Camus’ book during those 30 minutes.
This lasted only 3 days. On the 4th day, I went to look for my lunch bucket and it wasn’t there. Only later and indirectly did I learn that my lunch bucket had been buried in a pile of freshly poured concrete.
In retrospect I smile when I think of my lunch bucket, bologna sandwich, Hostess Twinkie and The Myth of Sisyphus all entombed in concrete at a power station in Indianapolis.
But over the years, this incident has been an invaluable teacher for me. I could analyze myself ad nauseum. Maybe it was the Sunday School in which I was brought up in which I promised never to have alcohol touch my lips, a promise I had broken even long before this incident. Or maybe it was just an “innocent thing” on my part. I am to philosophy and theology as a pirate is to a treasure map. I figure that one more book, and I’ll have it all figured out. Such is my arrogance. So, maybe forget everything else, I simply loved reading that book. Then again, heaven forbid, maybe what I did was rooted in some latent or blatant form of racism…. A College kid listening to Mariachi music and sipping Tequila! I don’t think that’s what it was, but it really doesn’t matter, because that’s how it seemed to Prezzy and my Mexican American friends.
When this finally dawned on me, I couldn’t believe how stupid, and not only stupid, but also how cruel I had been.
Nothing was ever said between us, but another thing I learned in Sunday School is that there is this blessed thing called the Ministry of Reconciliation, redemption and forgiveness. So, shortly after figuring out what had happened and the Sin I committed, I invited Prezzy and all my other laborer friends over to our family’s home where I asked Prezzy to teach me how to make tacos, a recipe that we still use even to this day. And yes, as we sat around the table enjoying Prezzy’s tacos, we also passed around a bottle of Tequila… Call it a Tequila communion.
Now, we come to Paddington Bear.
Michael Bond, the author and creator of Paddington Bear, died on June 27th at the age of 91.
The first book about Paddington Bear was published in 1956, and it tells the story of a stowaway bear from Peru who arrived at Paddington Station in London. Given the number of children who became refugees after World War II, this illegal immigrant bear became identified with all those from a foreign place in need of kindness and hospitality. On every Paddington Bear, there’s a little tag that reads, “Please Look After This Bear.”
So, I’d like to offer this bear as a gift to the Sunday School children of our church in honor of all the Paddington Bears, all the refugees who have enjoyed such wonderful kindness from you and your families. Laos, Burma, Burundi, Rwanda and now most recently, Syria. “We live by images”, Robert Jay Lifton said, and I hope this bear will be a visible reminder of St. Paul’s uncompromising admonition, “Practice Hospitality.”
But also, and this is most important, Paddington Bear represents not only refugees and stowaways but also the rest of us as well, for in a deeper sense, we are all in need of someone else’s love. In reading the obituary of Michael Bond I read with interest how late on a Christmas Eve in a department store in London, he was looking for a last minute gift, a stocking stuffer for his wife. He looked up and saw a toy bear sitting all by itself on a shelf, looking rather forlorn and unwanted. So, I love how Michael Bond reached up and bought that bear, and it was out of this that he created the story of Paddington Bear.
Further, I hope this Paddington Bear will be for our children but maybe for the rest of us as well, a reminder of a spiritual truth, and that is that we are all refugees, citizens of a Far Country, citizens of a Fair Country, far distant from all the unfairness of these earthly shores. We are all as the philosopher Martin Heidegger said, “unheimlich” or not at home in this world. Or as the poet Wordsworth said and as Plato said before him,
“Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting;
The Soul that rises with us, our Life’s Star,
Hath had elsewhere its setting
And cometh from afar;
Not in entire forgetfulness..
But trailing clouds of glory do we come
From God, who is our home.
We’re all stowaways from that sacred place. That’s our origin, and if all of us Paddington Bears would only be true to ourselves, that could be our destiny as well.
Our true home can never be with those who trumpet stars and stripes forever in ever increasing decibels. Rather our home is with another stowaway, one is also far too often left alone up on a shelf, one who quietly bears the stripes of his own persecution and crucifixion, one who refused to compromise on the principles of his citizenship in that Far Country, one who even on the cross, somehow, miraculously, found his way to the L key, saying, “Forgive them for they know not what they do.”
We may not know it; we may not realize it, but we are also refugees of that Far Country, dropped off at birth at Paddington Station. May Paddington Bear remind us of this Truth.
Finally, the rustic steps.
When I retired, I knew this church was in good hands when Steve elected to lead one of our Tree of Life journeys to Israel and Palestine, and not only that, he decided to bring his 9 year old daughter, Sabina, with him.
When they got home, I deeply appreciate how Steve found some rustic steps to make it possible for Sabina to bear witness to what she had heard and seen. You could see it in her eyes, a passion to share with others the injustices she had seen, the friendships she established with those from a different culture 5000 miles away and the responsibility we all have to work for justice and for peace.
As she stood in this pulpit, standing on those rickety steps, I was reminded of the image of a child in the scripture lesson from Isaiah that Lowell read this morning:
They shall not hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain..
And a little child shall lead them.
“We live by images…”
As she spoke I also thought of our scripture lesson, those familiar words where Jesus said, “Suffer the little children to come unto me…”
For me, this is not only about allowing little children to come and be cuddled on Jesus’ lap. It’s also an open invitation to let them know that they are needed in the great prophetic ministry of the church –to stand with Jesus, to take a stand for all that is good and decent and true, to speak out against hate and fear wherever it appears, to be unfailing and unflinching in their efforts to speak truth to power, to stand with Jesus in defense of those who cannot stand it any longer, those in need of hope and a better future for their children.
It was as if Jesus was saying, “Allow the children to come unto me…” for I need them now, more than ever. I need their enthusiasm, I need them to stand on whatever steps or podium they can find and give voice to their dreams of a better humanity. I need their idealism, and I need their unrelenting passion.
You know, if you’re a young family and you’re looking for a church, and you’re looking for a place that will be disconnected from the world, a place where your children can grow up isolated and dissociated from this troubled world in which we live, forget about it! This is probably the wrong church for you.
For here is a place that teaches its children to be Citizens of the World. Here is a church where children go to homeless shelters in New London or New York; here is a church where children are encouraged to go to Haiti or Palestine or Cheyenne River or South Africa, and when they get back home, they’re encouraged to stand on these rustic steps and bear witness to what they have seen.
We don’t want to infantilize our children; we want to empower them. We want them to “compete with the angels in dignity and glory.”
About the time I learned of the death of Michael Bond, the creator of Paddington Bear, I also heard the horrific story of the immigrants who died in the sizzling, suffocating heat of a truck in Texas.
I give thanks that here is a church that teaches its children to burn with righteous indignation at such reports. Here is a place where we want them to grow up to have the heat of their indignation be commensurate with the searing heat inside that truck.
Jacob needed a ladder to be assured of angels, and Noah needed an oversized boat to believe in a more promising future, but as for me, I find hope in simple rustic steps from which a child can peer out over this pulpit and offer his or her own voice of conscience. Celestial ladders and big boats cannot compare to a child on a step stool with a message that has to be heard.
May the prophetic witness of all our children lead us – as Isaiah said. May we be led by their example to hit the “L” key just as quickly and as often as we can. Amen.
The Rev. David W. Good
The First Congregational Church of Old Lyme, Connecticut