Proper 22C: My Dad and Rachel Carson

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Please forgive the indulgence
but I am going to tell you about my dad.
He would have been 100 years old
in a couple of weeks
but died from a fall about seven years ago.

My dad looked like the old Hollywood actor,
Gary Cooper;
tall, lanky, slow of movement.

It would be a gross understatement
to describe him as introverted.
My dad was a listener not a speaker,
and he was the kind of man that,
when he did speak up in a group,
everyone listened
because they knew
if my dad thought it was worth saying
it was worth hearing.
As I got older and ventured into our community
without my parents
and formed relationships as my own person,
I also began to recognize that my dad
had stature in our town.
Not because he ran for office
or held positions of influence or power
but because he was trusted.
People held him in esteem for his integrity –
his word was his bond, as the saying goes.

My dad was a Republican and quite conservative,
and started legal aid in our community
before there was such a thing as legal aid.
He was an attorney who had a solo practice
doing wills and estates.

But I discovered,
when I worked on the County Hi-way Crew
during my summers in college,
that many of the men I worked with also knew my dad.
He had a reputation among them too,
not just among his professional peers.
It seems that he was one of the few attorneys in town
that charged a very affordable flat fee for divorce
decades before that was even an idea.
When I asked him about it,
he told me he despised doing divorce cases
but that the men I worked with
couldn’t afford it otherwise
and he didn’t want them to suffer debt
when they were also suffering through divorce.

My dad was more libertarian than conservative, and he just did not want there to be much government.

So he did the kinds of things
people need to do for one another
if they don’t want the government
to provide the services.

Now my dad and I disagreed heartily on that principle
but he was a man who practiced what he preached,
even though he never preached.
Whatever someone knew about my dad,
it was because they dragged it out of him
or simply hung around in his presence over time
to watch what he did and how he lived.

One small memory is burned in my soul.
It was the second Earth Day.

Some of you may remember the first-ever Earth Day
that took place in the now crowded year
of cultural history, 1969.

Well this was 1970, the second one,
and it was bigger than the first.
“Silent Spring,” Rachel Carson’s small book
on the effects of indiscriminant use of pesticides
and the chemical industry’s misinformation about it,
had ignited the environmental movement.
My dad, I discovered,
was the President of the local Isaac Walton League,
and an officer in the local Audubon Society.
He was a bird watcher
and an environmentalist before it was a word,
even though he really was just a man
who believed in living simply.

I was in charge of organizing my high school’s
Earth Day symposium
and I begged him to be one of the speakers.
My dad was not a public speaker
but I didn’t know it at the time.
I was amazed then,
sitting on stage behind him as he spoke from the podium,
to see my dad’s knees shaking.
But I was proud
and the event went off with great success.

Then sometime not long after that event
my dad called me into my own bedroom
from wherever I had been.
He stood pointing at the light switch
and reminded me that I was to turn off the lights
when I was not in the room.
He told me in a quiet voice
about the coal required to generate electricity
and how that coal pollutes the air.
Now mind you, this was 1970.

But being the squirrely teenager I was,
I responded with some smart, defensive protest
and he stopped me short when he said,
“I guess you don’t really care about the environment.”

It was such a small incident, so small
it seems an unlikely thing to be seared into my memory.
And it would probably be the kind of thing
buried by the dust of forgetfulness
if not for the fact that my dad
was a man whose integrity was recognized as bedrock
by all who knew him.

The third promise of the Baptismal Covenant
is as singularly simple
as it is spectacularly powerful and difficult:
To live a narrow distance
between what we say we value
and what we do.
“Will you proclaim by word and example,
the Good News of God in Christ?”

Heck, that could be the whole covenant –
just that one promise:
“Will you proclaim by word and example,
the Good News of God in Christ?”

If you just walked in off the street
and haven’t been here for a couple of weeks, or ever,
then you should know you have stumbled into
a sermon series
and this is week number three.
We are focusing on the “Baptismal Covenant”
as articulated by The Episcopal Church,
which is our description of what it looks like
to practice Christian spirituality in 2016.

It is descriptive and not prescriptive.
It is about what we do
and how we do it
rather than what we believe
and how we say it.
All of these sermons are available online
from Trinity’s website or my personal website,
and there will be some hard copies here at the end
if you want to read them altogether.

Today I want to unpack
the dense knot of wisdom in Promise 3.

We are not a doctrinal church,
and that is very important to point out.
We do not have a Catechism
or a Confessional Statement,
or magical words of any kind
that bestow entrance into the love of God,
or heaven, or membership in the Church.

That is not us, that is not our tradition.

You do not have to take Jesus
as your “personal Lord and Savior”
to be a full and complete insider here.
You do not have to recite the Nicene Creed
or any Affirmation of Faith
as a litmus test of correct personal theology
in order to be a practicing “Episcopalian.”
In fact, you do not have to be an Episcopalian
to be a full member of this or any Episcopal congregation.

That is just who we are
and the kind of community we try to practice
in this brand of Christianity.

But on the other hand,
those who are baptized and wish to practice
Christian spirituality as we have come to understand it,
do need to take Jesus seriously
as representing or pointing to
the core of our spiritual wisdom.

We believe that God shown through Jesus
like sun through a prism,
and that what Jesus taught and lived
makes available to us profound wisdom
about God’s best dream for us.

Let’s just stop and think about that for a second.

If we could know what God thinks…
if we could see,
just for a nanosecond what God sees…
wouldn’t we want that?
No matter what you think God is
or what you think God does or doesn’t do,
wouldn’t we want,
if just for a fraction of a second,
a God’s-eye view
of living life in such a way as to promote more and greater life?

That is what we think Jesus offers:
a peek at God’s best dream for us.

Oh, and by the way,
we do not insist that it is the only peek
ever to be revealed,
before or after.
To embrace Jesus
does not require us to reject Moses, Mohammed, Buddha, Lao Tzu
or the pantheon of revelations Hinduism offers.
The wisdom revealed by God in Jesus
is neither enhanced nor discredited
by the claims or wisdom inherent
in other spiritual practices.

To hold and embrace the wisdom of Jesus
can and should be done
from a place of pluralism
not exclusivism or relativism.
This is who we are;
this is what we embrace;
this is the wisdom
that has been confirmed by our experience
and by the history of humankind.

We believe that through Jesus
God’s best dream for us
is made clearer
and more accessible.
That is the bedrock of our belief.

Now some of us, in the Episcopal tradition I mean,
want to add some stuff on top of that bedrock –
like Jesus is God
or was divine in a particular way –
but the bedrock is not about who Jesus was
it is about God.
The bedrock is about God
and God’s best dream for us,
and then getting our heads around that
so we can get on with living the dream.
We can argue about Jesus all day long,
and we probably will,
but it is living God’s best dream for us
that matters.
Our spiritual practice
is living God’s best dream for us.

I know that I am not going to be able
to convince anyone here
that God does indeed have “a best dream for us”
if you do not already know it or intuit it.
It is not even my job to convince you –
because contrary to popular belief
we are not in sales.
We are in construction.
We are builders, not sales representatives.

That has been the problem in Christianity.
We thought we were in sales
and our job was to convince people
to see the world
the way we wanted them to see it.

Our job is to be like my dad,
and live the life we imagine God dreams for us,
and hope that others around us
will find it compelling enough
that they then begin to see what we see
and do what we are trying to do.

So this third promise pinches us
between listening for God’s best dream for us
through the wisdom of Jesus,
and living that dream with our own lives.

Integrity can feel like a harsh requirement
when described as a narrow distance
between what we say we value
and how we live.
It’s just plain scary
because most of us know how wide that chasm
is for us in our lives – Yikes!

It ain’t just light switches we forget to turn off.

And please,
we’re not talking about punishment for failure
as if there is a special Hell
for people who don’t get it right.
The whole heaven and hell thing
is maybe the worst of Christian history
because in earlier times it promoted
so much violence and self-abuse.

The case for integrity
is not made with reward and punishment
but by understanding cause and effect.
If we do this,
then we can expect this outcome;
and if we do that
we can expect that outcome.
It is reasonable and based upon
the evidence of experience
not magical thinking about heaven and hell.

So finding our integrity
is like discovering our balance.

Remember learning to ride a bicycle?
I realize that was a pretty long time ago for some of us
but I suspect it is a memory that doesn’t fade too much.
Remember it?

There was the wobbling and teetering,
even the falling over and getting scraped knees?
But then you got back on your bike
and wobbled down the street
until, voila, you moved into that sweet spot
that was your balance upon those two wheels.
And what joy the freedom riding a bike brought you.

Integrity is the same.
We suddenly discover we are living what we cherish
and it feels awesome
and solid
and just plain good.
Then we do something that makes us fall down.
Or maybe it happens
but not because of something we do,
but because we didn’t recognize
things around us had changed.

But either way, we lose our balance
and we wobble
and teeter
and we violate our own principles.

But then we learn from it
and try again.
And that is how it goes if we are willing to learn.

So what do we need in our lives
to practice living a narrow distance
between what we say we value
and how we live?

Well, we need some wisdom
wisdom that stands the test of time.
Jesus offers that, which is part of why we gather here.
But we also need other people around us
to challenge and support us
as we wobble and fall, and get back up.

What we need is to see ourselves
in a process of learning to live with integrity,
rather than perfectionism
that requires us to get it right all the time.

What we need is a community
that nurtures and challenges us
to get back on the bike and wobble forward
rather than condemns us for failure
and threatens us with punishment.

What we need is grit
so that when we finally realize that balance
is always only temporary,
we will keep trying to discover it again.

a temperament to enter into learning as trial and error,
and gritty perseverance
is what we need
in order to practice promise number three:
to see and hear God’s best dream for us
and to live it as best we can
one day at a time.