Sermon on Eve of Eclipse

This is the sermon I preached on August 20th, 2017, the day before the “Great American Eclipse,” as it is being called. The eclipse comes at a time when we continue to struggle in our nation with the light and dark we see in others and in ourselves. The text was Mark 8:22-26. This was also the last in a series of sermons based on themes from a book by David Brooks called “The Road to Character.”

“Character in the Age of the Selfie”

“I see people, but they look like trees, walking.”

Jesus doesn’t seem to get it right the first time. That may be why Matthew and Luke – who had Mark in front of them as they wrote their gospels – leave out this story, and why the lectionary committee that assigns the readings we use throughout the year, omit it as well.

The blind man’s friends bring him to Jesus, begging him to heal their friend. The blind man says nothing. He continues to say nothing as Jesus takes him by the hand and leads him, presumably alone, out of the village. It is there, in that alone place, where honesty can happen. After spitting in his eyes (the NRSV cleans it up a bit), and laying his hands on him, Jesus asks, “What do you see?” Here is where we expect the blind man to announce he sees perfectly.

But no. He’s honest. “I see people, but they look like trees, walking.”

I’m not so hung up on the fact that Jesus’ first touch doesn’t heal the man fully. What I love about this text is the blind man’s honesty. He knows his healing has begun, but it is not complete. He knows he sees only in part. He knows he sees people, but not as people. For now, they look like trees, walking. He is on the way, but he needs a second touch.

I don’t know about you, but I think we are all of us standing in the same spot as that blind man out there alone with Jesus, awaiting the second touch. We come here Sunday after Sunday, listening for the Word, trying to make our way in the world by the light of Christ, and then something happens, and all we thought we knew changes.

My friend John tells the story of a man coming out of a funeral service and asking him, “Pastor, is cremation a sin?” John replied that he, and the PCUSA, believed that it was not. The man said, “Well, it used to be. What happened?”

We’ve stood at many moments like that in the church, especially one like ours that is 206 years old. There are a lot of used-to-bes. Used to ne that playing cards was a sin, dancing was a sin, drinking alcohol was a sin, marrying someone of another race was a sin, owning slaves was not a sin, and it was a sin to ordain a woman as an elder or minister. What happened?

Well, I think at least part of what happened is that we recognize afresh in each generation those blind spots we have, that we see people, but they look like trees walking, and as the times change and the church stands faithfully in the presence of Jesus, asking for the second touch, we are given eyes to see the ways God is at work, we see more intently, more clearly.

That’s what I believe is happening now in the church and in our country. It is happening across political lines, across racial lines, in every region of the country. We are being jolted into an awareness of who Jesus meant when he said love your neighbor as yourself. We know that we must stand and say in this moment, without equivocation, that white supremacy, the Ku Klux Klan, and Nazism is antithetical to all we believe as Christians and as Americans. One of the most heartening things to happen in such a disheartening time is seeing Republicans and Democrats and people from the south as well as other parts of the country, come together in this assertion, saying something most of us never dreamed we’d have to say in 2017.

But, as your pastor, that’s the easy part. It is easy for me to stand in this pulpit and denounce white supremacists and Nazis. And it is necessary. But there is something else necessary as well, and not nearly as easy.

Not long ago, I was driving in East Nashville and stopped at a light. I saw three African Americans walking up the sidewalk. I locked the car doors. And instantly I remembered my friend Perryn talking to me years ago, at Bethel College, where we were both students, telling me that as a white man I would never know the feeling of hearing car doors lock as you walk down the sidewalk.

Just last summer, I was standing in front of a book store in Portland, Maine. Kim was about to take my photo, when out of the corner of my eye an African American man approached. I flinched. He put his arm around me and smiled, wanting to get in the photo. But my first thought was fear, a fear I suspect would have been absent had he been white.

Wendell Berry, in the novel Jayber Crow, says that hate happens quickly, but the work of love is long and slow. It is easier to let my fears take control than do that long, slow work.
This is the hard part. The honest part. The part where I tell you I see people, but they look like trees, walking.

I wonder how many people could say that tomorrow, at a little after 1 p.m. They say that as the moon effaces the sun, at totality, crickets, which are normally quiet in the day time to avoid predators, will begin chirping. Cows and horses and birds will all, in their confusion, begin behaving as they do at night, scrambling for the barn, heading for the nests.

I mean, we have the benefit of preparation. The eclipse seems to be the only thing that can overshadow President Trump in news coverage. We buy viewing glasses, scout out the best location to be in the path of totality, close school systems, listen to safety warnings, and, yesterday on the way to Memphis I saw road signs every few miles warning motorists not to stop on the highway or park on the side during the eclipse. We are ready. But the poor animals, it hits them cold.

And yet. Annie Dillard, in a classic essay she wrote after viewing a total eclipse in Washington State on February 26, 1979, describes standing in a field close to Yakima. “It began with no ado. It was odd that such a well-advertised public event should have no starting gun, no overture, no introductory speaker. I should have known right then that I was out of my depth. Without pause or preamble, silent as orbits, a piece of the sun went away.

“Usually it is a bit of a trick to keep your knowledge from blinding you. But during an eclipse it is easy. What you see is much more convincing than any wild-eyed theory you may know. From all the hills came screams. A piece of sky beside the crescent sun was detaching. It was a loosened circle of evening sky, suddenly lighted from the back. It was an abrupt black body out of nowhere; it was a flat disk; it was almost over the sun. That is when there were screams. At once this disk of sky slid over the sun like a lid. The sky snapped over the sun like a lens cover. The hatch in the brain slammed. Abruptly it was dark night, on the land and in the sky. In the night sky was a tiny ring of light. The hole where the sun belongs is very small. A thin ring of light marked its place. There was no sound. The eyes dried, the arteries drained, the lungs hushed. There was no world.”

And she was ready. Appears there’s nothing like an eclipse to help you see how little you see.

This blind man stands at the beginning of a section of Mark’s Gospel when Jesus will tell his disciples three times he must die, and three times they show by their response they do not understand. They argue about who is the greatest among them, they clamor to sit at his right and his left in the kingdom, they long for power. They do not see. But they are the most dangerous kind of blind persons, the ones who believe they can see, perfectly.

We are living in that eclipse moment, the moment between the first touch and the second, when we see people in the murky, fading light, but they look like trees, walking. And the thing that may be needed most – beyond outrage and condemnation, beyond hate and blame – is humility and relationship. I think David Brooks’ book could easily have been called “The Road to Humility.” It seems that at the root of all the people he has explored, the thread that holds them together is the hard-won realization that they do not see perfectly, that they need others, they need someone outside themselves, to see more clearly. They need a second touch. In the age of the selfie, when it is so easy to create spaces where the self is the ruling authority, where all we see, hear, or say is geared to affirm what we already think we see so clearly, this is a task that will not be easy. He calls it the crooked timber tradition, the acknowledge that we are all made of crooked timber. It is a tradition that says, in the words of Bayard Rustin, “The only way to reduce ugliness in the world is to reduce it in yourself.”

That’s why I need my friends to take me to Jesus, to beg him on my behalf to help me see. That’s why I need time outside the clamorous lives we live to be alone with the One who has already touched me, has already begun that healing work in me, so I can be honest and say, “I see people, but they look like trees, walking.” I need the second touch.

The good news is that Jesus is ready to give it, as surely as the moon will slide on by the sun tomorrow and the light will return, and we will take off our glasses and look at each other and the world, and see, really see. May it be so. Amen.

Bearing

They say that great poets should never have to explain their poetry. I’m exempt from this rule due to my not being a great poet. So, a little introduction to this poem. It was inspired by a recent pastoral visit where the person surprised me with a response she had never given before. Frankly, she rarely lets on to how she’s really feeling, no matter how much space I try to give for sharing. Her response opened out into a conversation of vulnerability and grace. As I was leaving, she said, “Thank you for listening to all that. I just carried on about my problems the whole time. But I do feel lighter”

The whole conversation and my subsequent reflections on it gave rise to this poem, which I hope conjures the shadow of the cross, recent troubling events that show the darkness that can still reside in the human heart, the coming eclipse to this part of the world on Monday, and the grace of Christ, who bears with us as we bear up. 

But, all this explanation notwithstanding, I pray you hear what you need to hear to bear up through these days. 

Bearing Up

“I’m bearing up,” she said, in response 

To my pastoral call. 

Bearing. 

It is preferable, stylistically,

To carrying. 

It is better by far

Than lifting. 

It is – speaking just for myself –

More bearable

Than taking up. 

To bear it, shoulders collapsed by the

Sadness of it all,

Heart breaking open by the 

Violence within and without. 

To bear it

Until we come to the point

Not quite the breaking point,

But close – 

The sky darkens at noon

Over the God-forsaken one,

The midday stars proclaim

To all who are bearing up, and listening,

“My burden is light.”

The Danger of Certitude

There was a time, not long ago in the scope of history, when it was considered laudable – honorable even – to entertain the idea you might be mistaken. 

It was in the immediate aftermath of World War II – the scent of the gas chambers still in the air, the graves of soldiers dotting the landscape of Europe freshly dug, the bombed-out villages still smoldering, the mushroom cloud over Japan’s evaporated cities still vivid. 

After these horrors, for period of time, something emerged among enough people to make a difference – humility. While that post-war period was hardly a golden age, there was a resisitance of sorts to anything that smacked of totalitarianism. Hitler was the embodiment of that philosophy that some called totalism. It was a way of thinking that painted everything in the hues of in or out, black or white, with me or against me, good or evil. No room for conversation or debate or dissent, no space for nuance, no time for reflection. You had to be, in more modern parlance, “all in.”

In the post-war humility there was space for a national coming to terms with Jim Crow, for the creation of bipartisan consensus on a host of initiatives that improved the nation. 

I worry that we are flirting with totalism again. Maybe it never really goes away, but, like the devil tempting Jesus, “departs until a more opportune time.” 

I’m troubled by the certitude I see in others. I’m troubled by the certitude I see in myself. I worry we are too quick these days to huddle with the like-minded and subscribe to totalisms of the right and left that leave little room for nuance, conversation, or the possibility of change. I’m troubled because we’ve seen in history what totalism does, what certitude wroughts. Down this path is violence. Down this path is annihilation of the “other.”

David Brooks recently wrote, “We live in a moment when mobs on the left and the right ignore evidence and destroy scapegoats.” 

I’m writing this as I try to absorb the talk of nuclear war on the Korean Peninsula. I’m reflecting on these things as I watch a car rush headlong into a crowd of counter protestors at a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, killing one person and injuring nineteen. And immediately the same voices start shouting, blaming, condemning; looking everywhere but within for the cause. 

I don’t know about you, but I’m ready for a little humility. Those of us who take the name Christian say that we are saved by grace, that not one of us is perfect or even good. We are all of us broken. 

Grace. Not certitude. This is the path that leads to life. May God grant me the grace to walk it. 

It Springs Forth

Do you not perceive it?

In the shimmering ebony snake’s sudden plunge from a warming rock

In the mountain laurel on the swollen edge of bloom reaching for the sun

In the easy laughter slipping on the mossy rock drenched in the icy stream

In the rhythmic shake in the packed dance hall

In the sun drenched colors pink white yellow green, new shades each dawn

In cold and clean rain, unexpected grace of an April fire kindled in the stone hearth

In late conversations of old friends, spirits warming the night

In steps long and slow by lakes and trees up hills and down hand in hand heart in heart life in life

Life. 

It springs forth. 

Do you not perceive it?

What Do You See?


What do you see? 

A bloom of sunburst beauty, illiminating the cloudy morning of a well-groomed yard. 

The carefully cultivated return of spring, seeds planted in the cool of autumn bursting forth after a long winter’s germination. The result of planning and hard work on the part of a faithful gardener.

Look again. 

What do you see?

A weed. It springs up overnight in the midst of slumbering Bermuda; Bermuda which will soon enough assert itself and choke the life out of the interloper, if the chemicals from the lawn service don’t get to it first. 

I have been wanting to pull it for a week now, ever since it jumped from the earth after a long rain. It is embarrassing, I say. What will the neighbor’s think? I exclaim. 

Kim will have none of it. There’s beauty there, she says. Let it have its moment in the sun, she insists. 

Then we read together in our Lent book these words from someone grieving the loss of children in a bombing: “Then she burst into my room and grabbed me by the hand and said, ‘Hurry.’ We raced two blocks to an abandoned house where a front yard had just been attacked and overtaken by wild violets, by Johnny-jump-ups. We stood in silence for three long minutes and cheered the victory of beauty.”

It is a grace how beauty finds a way, even in the midst of desolation and dormancy, even in the dark, in spite of all we do to snuff it out. 

Kim is right. We should celebrate beauty even in the most unlikely of places. We should certainly not be embarrassed by it. Sometimes all it requires is perspective, eyes to see. 

So, probably out of fear I will sneak out and pull it up, she brings the weed inside, sets it in a place of honor. 


Soon enough the Bermuda will awaken, the “normal” flowers we planted last year or bought and carefully controlled and cultivated will bloom. But here, especially in this week we call Holy, it is time to contemplate the life that comes unbidden, unexpectedly, completely out of our much-vaunted control, and in its wake a mysterious beauty that hints at a love beyond all telling. 

And when, after the long dark night, it springs forth,  we join our alleluias to the host of heaven. 

This week asks the question of us. 

What do you see?

Epiphany

It is the forgotten day

Buried by the Christmas twelve

The Magi journey alone 

Most of us back to work

To the calendar 

Looking forward to ashes

Dancing palms

A piercing cry

And alleluias at dawn. 

But this year

Epiphany dawns white

Sun striking snow upon snow

With brilliance 

And wonder

And we are left

With wise ones of old

In silent reverie

Bearing our gifts

Shivering