16 Pentecost: Yes/NO

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Video version of this sermon and the worship it was part of, can be found by scrolling down to the bottom.

Soren Kierkegaard made the observation
about our ordinary human insanity,
that we could only understand life backward,
but we can only live life gong forward.

Likewise, we declare and grant
”Yes” and “No”
to so many life-altering events and decisions
without blinking an eye –
never knowing ahead of time what we
have accented to or denied,
and most of the time never knowing the implications
of our saying no.

The readings today
take us down that rabbit hole
and lead us along a twisted path.
I am going to do the same.

Let’s go back to the beginning of another century –
the turn of the 20th century – just for perspective.

In 1900
a massive hurricane swallowed Galveston, Texas whole
and killed 8,000 people.

In 1901
President McKinley was assassinated in Buffalo.

In 1902
a volcanic eruption on the island of Martinique
killed 38,000 people in a single moment.

In 1906
San Francisco had its famous earthquake and fire
that killed 3,000.
That same year an earthquake in Colombia killed another 1,000.
Still in 1906 an earthquake in Valparaiso, Chile
killed 20,000.

The bookend on that half-decade of devastation
was a famine in China
during which 20 million died in one year.
We could add to this woe by mentioning travails in Africa,
Australia, the Middle East or Siberia
in those first few years of the new twentieth century.

But one crucial difference
between then and now, is that now
their is a sandstorm  of information
about every and all disasters, wars, genocides,
economic meltdowns and even the death of unnamed individuals
who die from noteworthy causes
two continents away.

You and I are standing in the middle
of what might be the collapse of US capitalism,
and at the same time
we are inundated with horrendous details
about god-awful fires,
hurricanes, autocrats
poisoning or chopping up members of their opposition,
the North Korean nuclear program,
global warming witnessed one chunk of ice at a time,
and a global pandemic that has revealed
the astounding negligence and incompetence
of the current federal leadership.

We are drenched with disasters in great detail
whether or not we experience them personally
and whether or not we can exert any personal influence
upon solving them or caring for their victims.

Add to this gruesome storm of devastation,
threat, and calamity
any personal trauma, crisis, or grief
and our perspective on the world,
on life itself,
and on our own circumstances,
can be utterly distorted.

In fact, even if everything is going along well for us personally,
all that information
about things utterly beyond our control
can change our perception dramatically.
And we ought to know by now
that “perception is reality.”

In other words, how we perceive things,
whether we are accurate in our perception or not,
shapes our actions and responses.

So…in a moment like this one,
when institutions we have come to depend upon
are cracking if not collapsing,
and the vault of our trust in elected leaders
is more bankrupt than Pier One and JC Penny,
and the strange disconnect between
economic reality and the stock market
feels like thin ice,
we have less certainty than ever
about what to say “Yes” or say “No” to.
It is a good time to take a step back.

In times like these
we need to step back and name
what is most important to us.

We need to step back and name
who is most important to us.

We need to step back and name
who and what we have in our lives
for which we are most grateful.

We need to step back and name
who and what we need to reach out and hold onto –
for their sake and for ours.

It is in times like these
we need to step back from the fury of information
raining down on us like acid,
and filter it out
so that we can see our own situation more clearly.
We need to be like a dancer affixing her gaze
so she can retain her balance
while spinning furiously on her toes.

We likewise need to affix our gaze
on a single point –
on a single point that we trust…
on a single point that we love…
on a single point that we know
is more solid than anything else we know.

I won’t tell you there is only one single point
in the vast array of our spiritual wisdom
upon which to affix our gaze.
Our tradition has multiple points
and a long history of guides, mystics, and teachers
who offered different tethers in a storm
that work differently for different people.
Abraham and Sarah;
Moses and the Exodus;
Ruth and Naomi;
Isaiah, Jeremiah and Micah;
the parables and teachings of rabbi Jesus;
the mystical, resurrected Christ;
the wisdom of Paul;
the female and male mystics
of the 13th, 14th and 15th centuries;
the social prophetic martyrs of the 20th century…

In one sense
they are all part of one giant pier
upon which to tether ourselves in turbulent times,
but it is too big to hold onto the whole thing
and so we must choose a piece of it for ourselves.
We can wrap ourselves even around just a solid branch
of the giant tree that is most familiar,
most comforting,
most solid for us in the moment.

Knowing you surely have your own tether
or focus point for tumultuous and painful times,
I am going to share where my gaze is affixed just now.
Or to put in in terms of the readings,
where my “Yes” is declared and tethered.
For me personally,
the point on which to affix my gaze is trust –
trust that no matter what, no matter what,
it will be okay – because of God.

Now I don’t mean magical thinking
in the sense that because of God no one gets hurt
and everything turns out like Disney in the end.
I mean because of God, whatever happens,
I trust it will be okay.
Whether or not I survive
or those I love survive,
it will be okay because I trust God
is merciful.
I trust God to be God,
and therefore whatever happens will be grace.

What that really means
is that I am able to grab hold of a perspective
that it is not really about me
and not really about those I love,
rather, it is a perspective about something much bigger
and greater than myself.
To trust God to be God
is to gain the perspective
that it is not about me or mine,
or the nation or the church I belong to.

To trust God to be God
is to gain the perspective
that it is about so much more
than I can see at any given moment,
nor will I ever have the perspective
to judge the final outcome.

To trust God to be God
is to keep my vision affixed
on my core knowledge about God
and to hold onto it with determination and faith
rather than with fear and anxiety.

To trust God to be God
allows me to reach out
and hold the hands of people I see reaching toward me,
but also allowing them to hold me.

Trusting God to be God
means strengthening our connection
to others in community
at the very moment our knee-jerk reaction
is to recoil, pull away, and nurse
our hurt or fear in isolation.

I mention all of this,
not only because of the disintegration
of the financial system
or the fires
or need for face masks
or people who refuse to wear face masks
or any of it,
but because of that parable from Matthew.

It is an image of the tether
to which I affix my gaze in difficult times.
God is like the generous employer
who gives everyone the same pay
regardless of when they began working.

That pretty much preaches itself.

It’s great news to anyone except
those who have been working all day.
It’s great news to anyone except
those who nurse on resentment when someone gets more than they do.
There is something in this parable
that is very much like the story of the father
whose generous love and embrace
of his very derelict boy
fills the oldest and dutiful son
with nothing but bitterness.

There is something in this parable
very much like the story of Jonah
who complains angrily to God
that the whole reason he ran away in the first place
was because he knew, he just knew,
that if he really went and warned Nineveh to clean it up,
that God was going to grant them leniency.
It just burned Jonah up
that late in the game God was going to be merciful
instead of stingy with a kind of justice
that would punish them for not being good enough.
Jonah’s was a resentment
that revealed his deeply self-centered perspective.

And it is just not that difficult to identify with Jonah,
the Prodigal’s oldest brother
or those who worked the whole day for the same pay.
Everyone of us has sucked on that toxin before.
Everyone of us knows the bitterness of that bile.

Everyone of us knows the perverse pleasure
of nursing resentment
years and years after the perceived offense.

But resentment and bitterness are not
the primary disease,
they are the only symptoms.
The primary disease is a gaze that is affixed to the self.

The primary disease is being fatally rooted
in “me and my own.”
The primary dis-ease is a self-orbit
that knows no higher ground.

These parables and stories
that consistently come at us from out of our tradition,
push our gaze upward and outward
toward a perspective
that is much bigger and greater than ourselves.

That does not mean we don’t matter.
It does not mean our needs are unimportant.
It does not mean that our losses and pain
are not grievous and debilitating.
They are.
But rather, it means
we are a small part in a much bigger story
and our meaning is derived,
not from our part in the story,
but from the story itself.

Get it?

The rock solid meaning
to which we need to tether ourselves,
is the meaning of the story
– not our little part in it.

When we can affix our gaze
at difficult and painful moments
on our trust that the kingdom of God,
and this life we are living,
is part of a bigger
and more meaningful story than our own self-interest,
then we find ourselves able to unclench our jaws.

So I don’t really know what that means
for the long-term health or demise
of American capitalism
or global warming
or the fight for the soul of the nation,
but I do know
that I can see and hear
and comprehend much better
when I hold onto trust in God.
It helps me to unclench my jaw
and loosen my grip on the rope
and start reaching out to hold your hand.
Sometimes then, I can even allow you to hold mine.

Well, thank you so much for listening today,
and being part of this community across time and space – whoever you are
and wherever you are.

Peace be with you.