The First Congregational Church of Old Lyme
Texts: Matthew 5: 13-16; 2 Corinthians 4: 1-12
January 29, 2017
To Risk Delight
Here’s a poem that I’ve been sharing at our board and committee meetings recently. It’s called “A Brief for the Defense,” by a poet named Jack Gilbert. When I introduce it, I warn that it’s dark in tone, but that it has insights and wisdom that speak to our needs right about now. And I’ll offer the same introduction to all of you. This is a poem for troubled times, but I happen to know from conversations I’ve had that more than a few of you feel troubled down to your bones right about now. Even so, there’s wisdom here, and I think it’s important to reflect on Jack Gilbert’s wisdom, especially on the day of our annual meeting, when we reflect on where we’ve been this past year, and anticipate what might yet be required of us in the coming year. And so without further introduction, here’s “A Brief for the Defense.”
Sorrow everywhere. Slaughter everywhere. If babies
are not starving someplace, they are starving
But we enjoy our lives because that’s what God wants.
Otherwise the mornings before summer dawn would not
be made so fine. The Bengal tiger would not
be fashioned so miraculously well. The poor women
at the fountain are laughing together between
the suffering they have known and the awfulness
in their future, smiling and laughing while somebody
in the village is very sick. There is laughter
every day in the terrible streets of Calcutta,
and the women laugh in the cages of Bombay.
If we deny our happiness, resist our satisfaction,
we lessen the importance of their deprivation.
We must risk delight. We can do without pleasure,
but not delight. Not enjoyment. We must have
the stubbornness to accept our gladness in the ruthless
furnace of this world. To make injustice the only
measure of our attention is to praise the Devil.
If the locomotive of the Lord runs us down,
we should give thanks that the end had magnitude.
We must admit there will be music despite everything.
We stand at the prow again of a small ship
anchored late at night in the tiny port
looking over to the sleeping island: the waterfront
is three shuttered cafés and one naked light burning.
To hear the faint sound of oars in the silence as a rowboat
comes slowly out and then goes back is truly worth
all the years of sorrow that may yet come.
I’ve come back to Jack Gilbert’s words again and again for the wisdom embedded in several lines. Here are a few: we must have the stubbornness to accept our gladness in the ruthless furnace of this world. We must admit there will be music, despite everything. There is laughter everyday in the terrible streets of Calcutta. To make injustice the only measure of our attention is to praise the Devil. But above all, I return to the line: We must risk delight. That may sound counterintuitive. It might sound like a middle class justification for fiddling, while Rome burns. It might strike you as irresponsible, or decadent. Even so, what I have to offer you this morning is the admonition to risk delight, even in the furnace of the world.
Before risking delight, however, I’d like to risk an affirmation. I’m aware that we’re a diverse congregation, composed of differing points of view. I’m aware that for some of you, the pronouncements rolling out of Washington aren’t especially alarming, and are simply part of the cycle of change and transition that we all need to adjust to. I’m also aware that for many within our community, executive actions and pronouncements having to do with border walls, immigrants, refugees, religious discrimination, women’s reproductive rights and the environment have been the cause of enormous emotional anguish, to say nothing of fear and vulnerability. I do recognize that as a community, we are diverse in our composition, made up of numerous, and sometimes competing points of view. That’s all true.
But I also believe that as people of faith, we possess core values that unite us, what the Apostle Paul called treasures contained in clay pots. We possess treasures, you and I, that should not be forgotten, diminished, or neglected. One such treasure that unites us is a desire to discover, or perhaps to retain, a moral bearing in the world. We wish to be good, and to do the right thing. Another such treasure that unites us is this faith that, at root, encourages a spirit of generosity and compassion, hospitality and grace, humility and kindness and truth telling. This is what the Apostle Paul described as the fruits of the Spirit, which our children are busy learning about downstairs every week. Those are the sorts of human qualities that we all strive to practice. Here’s another treasure: we’re united by a faith that places value not only on interpersonal exchanges, but a faith that has a lived social dimension. To follow Jesus, to belong to the Reformed Tradition, to be a Congregationalist, means that faith isn’t only about a personal relationship with Jesus, although I’m glad if that’s something you have. It means that we care about social and cultural trends, and participate in shaping, or resisting, those trends as best we’re able. Another treasure: we’re united by a faith that insists on the goodness of the natural world, a world that, in the earliest stories of the Bible, humans are instructed to care for. We’re material creatures, embedded within a material world, and that very materiality is to be embraced and cared for – whether that involves caring for bodies or caring for the planet. Yet another treasure: we’re united by a faith that affirms the sanctity of human life, an affirmation that stretches across religious and national and economic and ethnic and racial and sexual boundaries. You are God’s beloved child, and so is everyone else, even the bigots, even the religious extremists. And then this, the most important treasure of all: we’re united by a sense that we’re all of us pursued, called, lured, drawn and invited by a gentle Presence that, despite the furnace of the world, despite the animosity and fear, wishes us well. We’re united by the affirmation that there is a beating heart within the universe, one that is both broken and playful, somehow upholding and guiding those with eyes to see and ears to hear. We have these treasures.
Those are non-negotiable pieces of what it means to follow in the ways of Jesus. They’re non-negotiable aspects of what it means to be a part of a community of faith. And so yes, we’re composed of differences, but whether you’re Republican, Democrat, Socialist, moderate, anarchist, or apolitical in your orientation, we are all united by a common faith that affirms that we are all stitched together as God’s beloved children in God’s beloved world, tarnished and sick at heart though it is.
Those affirmations, those treasures, have profound implications, which I believe are also non-negotiable for people of faith. It means that we’re called upon to embrace those who are feeling justifiably scared these days. It means that we’re called upon to listen to our brothers and sisters who are expressing profound anxiety, and not to dismiss it or ignore it. Our affirmation of faith must, must, extend so that it can be heard by Muslims and people of color, gay and lesbian and bi-sexual and trans folks, women who have endured sexual humiliation or assault, the disabled, and immigrants and refugees. I believe the values emanating from our faith unite us, and move us to affirm the dignity, worth, sanctity, and belovedness of all those who are feeling a sense of alarm right now. That’s a non-negotiable cornerstone of our faith, and it pains me that it even requires saying. But it does. Even here.
Martin Niemoller was a Lutheran pastor in Germany during the Second World War. He learned the hard way about the importance of affirmation. Niemoller became a leading voice of conscience during the Third Reich, though initially he cheered the rise of National Socialism. But in time, he became disillusioned, leading him to protest, which eventually led to his imprisonment. He survived, and wound up spending the remainder of his days speaking in favor of pacifism, while also warning about the dangers of nationalism. But Niemoller is most famous for the words he wrote shortly after his release from prison. You’ve likely heard them. They bear repeating, and often. Niemoller said, “First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out – because I was not a socialist. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out – because I was not a trade unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out – because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me – and there was no one left to speak for me.” Throughout his life, Niemoller substituted various groups and populations within his statement. Sometimes it’s the communists. Sometimes it’s diseased patients, or the disabled, or those in psychiatric facilities, those deemed to be a drain on society. Sometimes it’s dissidents in other countries. You and I, we could substitute our own, couldn’t we: first they detained the refugees on their way to America. Niemoller’s words remind us to guard against complacency. They remind us to continue to do the work that we’ve been given to do, work that this church has engaged throughout its 350 years of ministry. We have these treasures, and we are united by a faith which moves us to affirm our friendship and solidarity with those who are most vulnerable in this ideological climate. We’ll do so boldly.
So much for affirmation. Now for delight. I’m convinced that if we are to retain our moral clarity within the furnace of the world, if we are to retain our humanity and our spirits within a turbulent moment, we’ll need to retain our capacity for delight. We’ll need to retain our capacity for laughter, even if in Calcutta, even if in the cages of Bombay, even in a benighted moment of history. Jesus puts it thus: “You’re the salt of the world; if salt loses its flavor, what good is it?” He says further: “You’re the light of the world; no one lights a lamp and puts it under a bushel. Let your light shine.” If I were permitted an addendum to those words, a supplement, I would say: “You are a jalapeno pepper in the world. You are the spice of life. You are the hot sauce that brings flavor, zest, punch and kick to the world. You are the adrenaline rush, the fever, the thrill, the hot sweat that comes from a spicy pepper. If I were permitted my own commentary on that famous sermon delivered by Jesus, I would say: No need to be dour. No need to be bland. No need to be flavorless. You’re the habanero, you’re the zest, you’re the jolt, you’re the buzz. Paraphrasing Jesus: without flavor, what good are you? What good are any of us?
Last week I spoke about the need to preserve solitude, but I also think we need to find ways to preserve our delight, and our enjoyment, lest we praise the Devil by worshiping at the altar of injustice. That can mean a lot of things, but it certainly has to do with embracing the arts. It’s not a coincidence that there’s talk of eliminating the National Endowment for the Arts. But as Jack Gilbert’s poem reminds us, we need to recall that “there will be music, despite everything.” There will be poems, despite everything. There will be paintings and films and novels, despite everything. There will be theater, despite everything. There will be dancing and culinary feasts, despite everything. One of the most powerful moments of my life was being at a house party with some Palestinian friends not a mile from the Apartheid Wall. They cooked an incredible feast, and we weren’t there ten minutes before the instruments came out and the singing and dancing began, followed soon by a hooka, and by a strong bottle of something or other. In the ruthless furnace of the world, our friends knew the importance of creating moments of delight, and enjoyment. They knew that their own humanity was at stake. And they used art and music and food to bring themselves together, and to renew their spirits.
We could learn a thing or two from our Palestinian friends, though perhaps in our own idiosyncratic ways. We’ll need to continue to gather together, the way some of you did last evening over assorted dinners. We’ll need to affirm professional and amateur artistic expressions around us, like those offered by our choir. We’ll need to share stories that make us laugh, the way everyone laughed yesterday afternoon in this meetinghouse at Janie Davison’s funeral, when stories of her zest for life were shared. We’ll need to cherish moments like the one I heard about yesterday. When Allison Hine took Kamber Hamou, one of our Syrian refugee friends, shopping to get a suit for the school dance, the salesman helping them heard that Kamber was a refugee. He was so upset by the ban on refugees that he wound up helping to pay for the suit, just to feel as though he was contributing. We’ll need random acts of kindness and grace, like that one, even as our friends are struggling to understand what’s happening around them. We’ll need to tap our toes during requiems, whistle during the Dies Irae, grin though the news is grim. We’ll have to defy the leaden spirit of the age, weighing us down. We’ll perform a dance upon the abyss.
One last story before I’m through. On the morning of August 7th, 1974, a man appeared to be hovering in thin air in the space between the Twin Towers. His name was Philippe Petit, an acrobatic artist, and he had launched a clandestine mission in the middle of the night to string up a wire between the towers. It was maybe an inch in diameter. Just after 7 AM, he stepped out upon the abyss and walked across the chasm. Passersby on the street stopped to marvel and stare, and more than a few were relieved when Petit, a quarter of a mile above them, got close to the far tower. Except then he reversed himself, and walked back toward the center. The wind whipped around him, but Petit was supremely balanced. For forty five minutes, he walked on air. At one point, he sat, and then he laid down on the wire. Police made their way to the roof, and Philippe Petit toyed with them, drawing near, and then moving back onto the wire. One cop, who must have had a sense of humor, said, “You get in here right now or I’ll come out there and I’ll get you myself.”
Petit’s performance took place two days before Richard Nixon resigned in disgrace. It took place after an unpopular war had divided the country, one that would soon result in a humiliating withdrawal. It took place after the counterculture and all of its promise had been more or less shattered. It took place after the civil rights movement had fragmented. It took place as New York itself was poised at the brink of bankruptcy, and as some of the outer boroughs smoldered. There was reason to feel gloomy, and more than a little hopeless. But there was Philippe Petit, moving his way across the abyss, and then miraculously, there he was, playing upon it. This was a man embracing the spice of life, giving it kick, zest, and heat. When he was asked why he did it, he was rendered inarticulate. One may as well have asked why children play or lovers love. He did it for the delight of it, for the wonder of it. Some who witnessed it knew they would never see anything of that magnitude in their lives again. I’m sure they were right.
I take it that Philippe Petit’s performance is a metaphor for the kind of faith required of us just now. There are reasons to feel gloomy. There’s sorrow all around. That’s the abyss over which we stand. And we’ll need all the courage and ingenuity we can muster in order to confront that sorrow and its sources, in whatever way we can. When we do, we’ll be taking our step onto the wire, defying the spirit of the age, defying gravity, defying that which would weigh us down. That’s when we’ll perform our own movements, even as the empty air attempts to claim us. We won’t fall. We’ve been rehearsing this act for a long time now. We’ll risk delight, even in the furnace of the world. We’ll do so because of the treasures that have been gifted to us in the life of faith, the affirmations of ourselves and our neighbors that we carry within us. Such will balance us, even as we dance across the abyss.