The First Congregational Church of Old Lyme
Texts: Exodus 29: 1a, 4-9; Proverbs 8: 22-36
January 8, 2017
That Which Knits The World Together
Here’s a quote from Frederick Buechner, a writer of novels and several memoirs, as well as some beautiful pieces of theology. He’s speaking about listening to the little granulated moments of emotion within each of our lives that we too often forget or ignore. But he’s especially interested in tears. About tears, he writes:
“You never know what may cause them. The sight of the Atlantic Ocean can do it, or a piece of music, or a face you’ve never seen before. A pair of somebody’s old shoes can do it…. You can never be sure. But of this you can be sure. Whenever you find tears in your eyes, especially unexpected tears, it is well to pay the closest attention. They are not only telling you something about the secret of who you are, but more often than not God is speaking to you through them of the mystery of where you have come from and is summoning you to where, if your soul is to be saved, you should go next.”
That passage about tears came to mind earlier this week during an otherwise unremarkable moment. This past Monday was cold and rainy, and though it was technically still a holiday, everyone in our house had the post-Christmas blues. Nothing was left now but to take down the decorations and the tree and to store them for next year. Nothing was left now but to return to school the following day. And so in an effort to divert ourselves, I had taken the kids to the movies. It was called Remarkable Beasts and Where to Find Them, a kind of prequel to the Harry Potter stories. Despite the title, I confess I found it mostly unremarkable. There were good guys, there were bad guys, there were battles, and, as often happens in such films, a vast portion of a city was destroyed in the final confrontation. It was all so…tedious, though in a visually appealing way.
But then one of those Buechner moments caught me off guard. Toward the end, amidst the destruction of the city, several of the characters use their powers to put the city back together, restoring what had been destroyed. Bricks are restacked, cars are set upright, wood and plaster are reconfigured, pavement is replaced. Buildings are refurbished, and wounds are somehow healed. And to my great surprise, to my embarrassment, really, I felt tears welling up in my eyes. I say that I was surprised and embarrassed simply because I was, prior to that, rather disengaged in the story. I say that because, like many of you, I’ve been trained to distrust sentimentality, or the easy emotions manufactured by popcorn entertainments. I say that because by all rights, those tears ought never to have occurred in such a paint by numbers story. Embarrassing or not, they did cause me to pay attention. And so I’ve followed Frederick Buechner’s advice, and I’ve thought about what that series of images was triggering.
Here’s what I’ve come up with. We know more than a little about the destruction depicted in films like Fantastic Beasts. We’re saturated by such images. The destruction of Aleppo, the carnage of Istanbul, or Berlin, or Paris, the devastation of gun violence in Chicago or LA, the damage to water and communities in Flint, or at Standing Rock, the bombs falling on Afghanistan or Yemen – my God, but do we know something about destruction. I tend to think that all the images of destroyed cities that occur in films, especially the superhero genre, are ways of attaining some kind of psychic mastery and control over the very real destruction that takes place in our world, a destruction that can’t help but make us feel vulnerable at some level of our being. We know all about destruction.
But I wonder if we know as much about its opposite – the impulse to create, to build, to heal, to restore. That’s what I encountered in that otherwise forgettable movie, and I was surprised to find myself blinking back tears. Those tears were a realization that I not only desire images of a world restored as a kind of palliative – they were a realization that I actually believe something like that is true, that it exists, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. It doesn’t unfold in the way depicted in the film, with magic and wands and all of that. But those images served as a reminder that the deepest and best parts of our faith tradition affirm that there exists something that binds the world together, however tenuously, despite our great capacity for violence. My tears were a reminder of what I’ve believed all along, of what our faith has affirmed all along: that there is something within the world capable of stitching, and refashioning, and mending that which has been broken, despite our incredible capacity for destruction. There exists that which knits the world together. Despite Aleppo, despite Chicago, despite Jerusalem, or Johannesburg, despite the wreckage within each of our hearts, there is that which somehow, stays the nothingness.
It’s what the older theologians called the doctrine of creation. Understood properly, that doctrine isn’t about the origin of the world. It’s not about beginnings. Nor is it really about a divine superpower that causes everything to spring into existence out of nothing. It’s not about those things at all. Read carefully, those old doctrines have to do with encountering the wonder of existence, marveling that there’s something rather than nothing, feeling awe that gravity and oxygen and light and warmth and bodies and consciousness should be ours. It’s about the miracle that a planet such as ours should exist in the first place, one that can sustain any kind of biological life at all, let alone complex organisms like human beings and animals. The doctrine of creation is about the wonder of small things – that fact that when I cut myself, new tissue will somehow grow around that wound, or if I were to break my arm, cells will grow in such a way as to mend the fracture. It’s about the splendor of nature – the knowledge that leaves will grow back on the trees, that the seasons will change, that the sky brings forth water, that edible plants and other creatures are to be found for sustenance. The doctrine of creation is about the mystery of human cognition, the realization that something within you and within me allows us to organize our experiences and memories into something like a pattern. Yes, we can offer scientific explanations for each of those processes, but none of those explanations diminish the sheer wonder that it is so. However fragile, however prone to harm, there is that within the world that holds things together.
But that old doctrine of creation is about more still. It’s about the ways human lives are somehow stitched together not only biologically, but socially, how we’re enabled to exercise care for one another, and trust of one another. It’s about the ability to join together in common projects that sustain us. It’s about the formation of things like friendship. It’s about the formation of bonds of affection in communities, or families, or with those whom we have little in common, at least on the surface. The doctrine of creation isn’t about the origin of the world. It’s about the wonder that somehow and in some way the world actually is, and that something within it stitches, knits, mends, creates, holds, binds, and fashions it all together. Call it what you wish. Some of us call it God. I happen to like that word, even though it’s been too often abused. But some among us might prefer words less loaded – biological complexity, say, or worldly wonder. Call it whatever you wish. It is still miraculous.
A ritual exists within our tradition called anointing. It’s a way of conveying a sense of purpose and blessing, a sense of vocation and mission. When it was used upon Aaron in the Hebrew Bible, it was meant to reinforce his identity as a participant in the work of creation – building, upholding, nurturing, supporting, reminding, pushing, and exhorting those within his care to remember themselves as participants in that sacred drama. When that ritual was used in the New Testament, it was extended to all who seek to live into the ways of Jesus, a reminder of what the Reformers called the priesthood of all believers. We’re all called to participate in the sacred work of creation, becoming those who bless, rather than curse, who heal rather than hurt, who knit together rather than tear asunder.
That seems an appropriate way to begin a new year, especially this new year. Amidst so much uncertainty about what may unfold in the weeks and months to come, I want each of us to remember that we have been called to discover and participate in that which knits the world together. For all the ways the world can be torn asunder, for all the ways individuals and institutions can inflict harm and destruction, I believe there exists a weak but insistent force within the world that binds, that heals, that connects. I believe that gentle and persistent force exists within you, within all of us, and that if we could but live into it we would avoid so much of the calamity that seems to visit the human family.
To be sure, sometimes making that affirmation entails saying “No” to the spirit of the age. Sometimes it means resisting that which hinders or obstructs the work of creation. We’re not asked to maintain a false peace. We’re not called to become quiescent. We must never become a spiritual Switzerland, afraid to speak about painful realities. Participating in the work of creation means speaking and acting in a way that is consistent with that within the world which binds and holds and nurtures and upholds us all – even and especially if that requires us to maneuver against the spirit of the age.
And so I invite you, if you so desire, to come forward to receive an anointing for the new year, a reminder of who are, and of who you’re called to be. In this new year, I invite you to discover within yourselves and in the environment around you that which binds the world together in a sacred tapestry of meaning. I invite you to discover your tears, and, perhaps, the God who seeks to move you amidst those tears. Amen.
 Buechner, Frederick, Whistling in the Dark (New York: HarperOne, 1991), under the entry, “Tears,” pg. 117.