Sermon by Barbara Mraz - Jan 14, 2018

 

1 Samuel 3:1-18
Psalm 139
John 1:43-51

 

Mid-January and the talk of resolutions and goals and self-improvement is starting to wane but is still there.  With the Super Bowl and upcoming Olympics, now it seems to be all about contests: one football team against another, one skater against another, even your 2017-self up against the improved one you hope to create in 2018: thinner, fitter, smarter, nicer, maybe richer, even more spiritual. The self-improvement industry in the U.S. takes in ten billion dollars a year.

Contests and relentless goal-setting can have a price. Rates of anxiety and depression are at record levels; the emotional fitness of the President is being questioned, and the flames of fear are being fanned at every turn: Is there a correlation between eating avocados and Alzheimer’s? Between airplane travel and acne? Between apples and arthritis?

My favorite coping mechanism cited in a recent New Yorker article is the editor at a large publishing company who was so stressed that her panic attacks required medical attention. So to help stay calm at work she kept a kitty litter box full of sand under her desk so that she could plunge her toes into a simulated beach.

The thing is, we each want to be recognized, known as a unique and valuable human being. Consider the three-year-old’s litany: “Mom! Mom! Look! Watch me! Mom!” These cries take different forms as we get much older when eventually we may think of leaving some kind of legacy, tangible evidence that we were here on this earth.

Two of today’s lessons go to the heart of these questions of self-worth and the desire to be known. Our focus today is on knowing: How do we know ourselves? How do we know God?

In today’s Gospel, Phillip is telling his friend Nathaniel about Jesus and Nathaniel smirks, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”

Although a Roman garrison was located there, Nazareth was Podunk Central, a small village of 500 people and a size of 50 or 60 acres, even though a physically green and beautiful place, Nazareth was considered Hicksville, boondocks, trailer park territory, whose citizens were bumpkins, fodder for ethnic jokes and pronounced Hebrew so crudely they were forbidden from reading the Torah when they traveled to the temple in Jerusalem. Hence, Nathaniel’s comment.

What follows is a puzzling exchange where Jesus compliments Nathaniel on his sincerity, and remarks that he had seen him earlier, sitting under the fig tree – which was a traditional place where rabbis sat to study the Torah.  Then surprisingly, Nathanial acknowledges Jesus as the King of Israel!

Is Nathaniel over-reaching here? How could such passionate belief result from a fairly straightforward compliment? It seems to be because Nathaniel felt that Jesus knew him. It’s like the Samaritan Woman at the Well, also in John’s Gospel, who responds so strongly to Jesus after he tells her that he knows she had three husbands, “He told me everything I ever did,” she later says. In both cases, feeling known to the core triggers belief. We trust people who “get us.”

There is also a kind of recognition of each other in the exchange between Jesus and Nathaniel. The Irish poet John Donahue says that the basis of friendship is recognition – recognition of some commonalities, perhaps or seeing something in the other person that reflects a part of yourself.

Sometimes we work hard to find commonalities:

“So you’re from West St Paul. Do you know the Petersons?”

“Can’t say I do.”

“Ever work at the Honda dealership by Target?”

“Nope.”

“There’s a big garden store near West St Paul near Robert Street.  Ever been there?”

Headshake.

Do you know Gary Hagstom?? He went to high school in West St. Paul.”

“Yes! Yes, I do! Yes!”

There are different kinds of knowing. One is intellectual knowing: the realm of verifiable facts, information, science. Science tells us what is true – until it isn’t.  We know now that carrots do not let us see in the dark, that swimming after eating will not give you cramps, that you do not need to drink eight glasses of water a day. And that Pluto is not a major planet! Tomorrow science might refute itself again…

While science takes thing apart to understand them, religion puts things together to see what they meaning.  Spiritually or emotionally, we can know things without verifiable proof, perhaps the way Nathaniel ‘knew” Jesus.

Martin Luther King whose birthday we honor on Monday says he had an “epiphany in the kitchen”:

One person  offers this description: “It was January of 1956 and the Montgomery Bus Boycott — expected to last for a few days – passed over into weeks and months, and white Montgomery rightly discerned a bona fide economic threat. That’s when the death threats began.  Chilling and cutting to the chase: “Call off the boycott or die.” Towards the end, as many as 40 such phone calls came in every day. And on one occasion, when the police had hauled him into jail for speeding, in the clutches of the police at last, he imagined himself on the threshold of being lynched. Fear descended like a fog.

King describes the night of January 27:

 With my cup of coffee sitting untouched before me, I tried to think of a way to move out of the picture without appearing a coward. In this state of exhaustion, when my courage had all but gone, I decided to take my problem to God. With my head in my hands, I bowed over the kitchen table and prayed aloud: “I am here taking a stand for what I believe is right. But now I am afraid. The people are looking to me for leadership, and if I stand before them without strength and courage, they too will falter. I am at the end of my powers. I have nothing left. I’ve come to the point where I can’t face it alone.
At that moment, I experienced the presence of the Divine as I had never experienced God before. It seemed as though I could hear the quiet assurance of an inner voice saying: “Stand up for justice, stand up for truth; and God will be at your side forever.” Almost at once my fears began to go. I was ready to face anything.”

Three days later a bomb blasted his house and his family escaped harm by a hairsbreadth. “Strangely enough,” King later wrote, “I accepted the word of the bombing calmly. My religious experience a few nights before had given me the strength to face it.”

King knew he had this experiencer but, of course could lot prove it, any more than you can “prove” love.

These are tough times for religious knowing and defending it against the assaults of reason. Just as Nathaniel had a knee-jerk reaction against Nazareth (“Can anything good come out of —- Haiti?”) there are some today who have the same kneejerk reaction to religion and to the church, dismissing it out of hand.  Rabbi Jonathan Sachs: The methodology of the new atheists consists in criticizing religion without understanding it, quoting texts without contexts, taking exception as the rule confusing folk belief with reflective theology, abusing, mocking, ridiculing, caricaturing, and demonizing religion faith and holding it responsible for all the great crimes against humanity.  

Of course, we fear what we do not know.  This is nothing new.

The American preacher Lyman Beecher wrote a fiery tract in 1835 called “A Plea for the West,” which ignited fears of a Catholic plot in Europe with countries “sweeping their streets” and depositing the Catholic refuse on the shores of America.  Shortly after one of Beecher’s anti-Catholic sermons in Boston, a mob burned down an Ursuline sisters’ convent in Charlestown, almost given permission.

Knowing each other and God is one thing, but today’s psalm makes the daunting claim that God knows us, as members of the human race, but also as individual, beloved beings.  To me the most beautiful and evocative of all the psalms, the 139th the first verse presents a God who knows us intimately and even searches us out.  I think the feeling is the same as in a story I ran across about young girl with a cleft palate who was ridiculed by her classmates: She writes “One day in the second grade class of Mrs. Leonard, whom we all adored—a short round, happy, sparkling lady –there was a hearing test.  Each student was called forward by Mrs. Leonard and we stood facing the door so we couldn’t see her and covered one ear, while sitting at her desk she would whisper something, and we would have to repeat it back – things like ‘The sky is blue’ or ‘Do you have new shoes?’ I waited there for those words that God must have put into her mouth, those seven words that changed my life. Mrs. Leonard said, in her whisper, ‘I wish you were my little girl.’” That is the feeing of the 139th Psalm.

The Psalm also says that God knit our bodies together in the womb, and that we are each “marvelously made.”  How easy it is for to see that perfection in the newborn baby, even in a child.  How hard it can be to see it when we are older, applying harsh cultural standards of judgment to ourselves. I don’t think marvelousness has an expiration date but needs an extended, more compassionate definition. “The old do not wish to be young,” I heard actor Helen Mirren say recently,” they want dignity.”

I will conclude with this: Last Thursday evening I went to my friend Holly’s for dinner.  I walked into her art-filled great room, awash with color and vibrant images and a large square of furniture in front of a fireplace, and I felt like I had been kicked in the stomach.  I had never been there at night before and never at all when when Camille was absent.  Once a month for a year or more a small group of women had met here to support Camille and each other. So somehow I expected her to show up, to come sweeping into the room with smiles and books and her relentless energy. She always sat in that same light green chair as we had prayed with her for healing.

Where was she?

If friendship is in part recognition, Camille and I were friends on that basis.  We each had a similar drive, relentless curiosity, a focus on our families, and swooned at the proper poetic phrase. We had both written books. We both had the same disease, for a while even the same doctor, an intense Spaniard whose name we liked to say out loud “Domingo Perez.”

Throughout the evening my mind would return to Camille, so conspicuous in her absence, her funeral only months ago and it returned to her again when I was finishing this sermon.

And I realized some things: that if Psalm 139 is right, God created Camille and knit her together into the unique person she was but also that God does not leave his creation raw and unfinished but evolving and changing.  This is who Camille was in her life; It was impossible to imagine her otherwise.

And after consulting my favorite literary source Christian Wimans, I found this: “To die well, even for the religious, is to accept not only our own terror and sadness but the terrible holes we leave in the lives of others; at the same time to die well, even for the atheist, is to believe that there is some way of dying into life rather than simply away from it, some form of survival that love makes possible.  I don’t mean by survival merely persisting in the memory of others, I mean something deeper and more durable.”

Speaking of his grandmother he goes on to say,” I feel that to be faithful to her, faithful to that person that I loved as much as I have ever loved anyone, I must believe in the scope and momentum of her life not the awful and incongruous instant of her death; in truth it is not difficult at all.  Nor is the other instinct belief – or instinct, really — that occurs simultaneously: that her every tear was wiped away, that God looked her out of pain, that in the blink of an eye, the world opened its tenerest interiors and let her in.”

In my deepest chambers of my heart this is what I feel; this is what I believe, and somehow, this is what I know.

Amen.

 

 

 

Sources:

Alexandra Schwarz, “Improving Ourselves to Death,” New Yorker, January15, 2018.

National Catholic Reporter, Jan 16, 2007.

Jonathan Sachs, The Great Partnership, 2011.

James Carroll, Christ Actually. 2014.

Christian Wimans, My Bright Abyss, 2007.

 

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