First Things First
Sermon delivered by Rev. Mike Morran on November 7, 2010 at First Unitarian Society of Denver
Call to Worship
Words by Clarke Wells
Once upon a time there was a magician who didn’t know he was one because no one ever told him he was, and besides he had been taught from early childhood that magicians were not to be taken seriously. They were trick players, prestidigitating, pretending to make things happen that can’t happen, presuming to have special powers which everybody knows they don’t have. The magician (who didn’t know he was) lived simply; minded his own business, and didn’t say much and was good to his family and worked at his job as hard as you would expect an ordinary man to work at an ordinary job.
When one day he died it was an ordinary sort of death and everybody came to the funeral because Rev. Poke always gave great funeral talks. Rev. Poke began with “swelling prologues to imperial themes” and ended on the same note, swelling. Sometime after the funeral, the magician’s children discovered a diary which they did not know their father had kept, and they opened it and a jaguar jumped out, and yards and yards of rainbow silk, desperate, beautiful, unwinding.
From 1 Corninthians:
For the Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God
For what person knows a person thoughts except the spirit of the person which is in him?
So, the Whole Souul Living theme for the month of November is preparation. It’s one of those themes that on first sight seems not very exciting. And maybe not even on second sight. It made me think about the four college kids who had a test coming up, but they had procrastinated and partied too long and on the morning of the exam they just weren’t ready. So they thought up a ruse, and each of them smeared themselves with some grease and dirt, put a few rips in their clothes and then went to see the professor, saying they had had a blowout on their car the night before and had to push the car for miles, and could they please reschedule the test. The professor was totally gracious about and said, “No problem. Come back in three days and you can take the test then.” So they went home and this time they did study, and came back three days later completely prepared.
The professor said, “Wonderful! But I’m changing the conditions a little bit. I’m going to put you all in separate rooms.” Upon sitting down in their separate rooms, the students discovered that their test had only two questions on it. First, “What is your name?” And second, “Which one of the four tires blew out?”
Preparation as a theme might sound a little like work. Preparing for a test. Preparing to travel. Preparing for some specific or particular thing. Going down a checklist. But preparation is a time honored discipline of the spirit. In Buddhism, all of the practices, mantras, meditations, and understandings can be seen as a kind of preparation. In the rituals of indigenous peoples, a lot of attention is paid to the preparations for coming of age, for taking on leadership, for waging war, or getting ready for death. In the Bible, many of the parables that Jesus tells are about preparation. Are you ready? The stories ask. Have you prepared? Have you filled your lamp with oil, so that your way will be lighted when you go out into the world?
So our theme for the month is preparation, but we’re changing the way we do monthly themes. We started these a little over a year ago, and we’ve done Vision, Transcendence, Mysticism, Justice, Insight, Truth, and many more. The basic idea is that we have this whole congregation where we practice religious pluralism. Which means we have Unitarian Universalist pagans, and Buddhists, and atheists, and humanists, and Christians, and more, and that’s wonderful! Everybody’s got their own thing going on, but how do we respect all those differences and still generate some sense that we’re all on a common journey? Something that everyone, no matter what their religions perspective could find some meaning in?
That is precisely what Whole Souul Living was created to help with. We would have a religious or spiritual theme each month that all our beautifully diverse Unitarian Universalists could find a way to explore; our Buddhists could approach it as Buddhists, our humanists as humanists, our Christians as Christians, our questioners as questioners, and so on. And that way, even if we approach any given theme from different directions, we might at least be having the same spiritual conversation. Eric Bliss, our intern, and myself have spent a lot of time generating materials on these themes and posting them on the church website, and we try pretty hard to have all the Sunday services in a given month be related to that theme. (Lia and Sarah try hard to bring us music around the themes, But the whole thing hasn’t really caught on, even though I still really believe in the basic idea. I think for the month of September, all the reflective materials we put on our website had something like ten hits.)
So we’re gonna try something different. There are still some resources on the web, but the focus is on some reflective questions related to the topic. And these will still be on our website, but they are also in your order of service. They will be woven into this sermon. And they will show up in other places as well. These are meant to be pondered, and talked about, and shared with each other, and explored. I think you’ll find them very rich, and especially if you use them as conversation starters.
So the theme for November is preparation, and the story we told during the Call to Worship was a part of that. Remember the magician who didn’t know that he was one. And he lived such an ordinary life, but when he died his children found his diary, and when they opened it, out jumped a jaguar, and yards of colored silk; beautiful, desperate, unwinding. I shared that parable with a group of church members the other night, and I learned that very few saw the connection to preparation. And many of them had a hard time not getting literal about it. What do you mean? A jaguar jumped out of a diary? The whole thing is a metaphor for the things we keep inside us. Like most good teaching stories, the moral is that we are all magicians, full of surprises and wonders, yards of brightly colored rainbow silk, beautiful, desperate, unwinding…
But another part of the moral is that this was a man who never prepared for anything. Who never let himself out. Never allowed himself to shine. Never explored the deeper and truer parts of his nature. For what person knows your thoughts, except the spirit of the person who is in you?
Have you prepared, are you preparing, to live a life of fullness and joy? Here’s another story, another parable, this one from Hyd-masti.
Years ago, a farmer owned land along the Atlantic seacoast. He constantly advertised for hired hands. Most people were reluctant to work on farms along the Atlantic. They dreaded
the awful storms that raged across the Atlantic, wreaking havoc on the buildings and crops. As the farmer interviewed applicants for the job, he received a steady stream of refusals. Finally, a short, thin man, well past middle age, approached the farmer. "Are you a good farm hand?" the farmer asked him. "Well, I can sleep when the wind blows," answered the little man. Although puzzled by this answer, the farmer, desperate for help, hired him. The little man worked well around the farm, busy from dawn to dusk, and the farmer felt satisfied with the man's work.
Then one night the wind howled loudly in from offshore. Jumping out of bed, the farmer grabbed a lantern and rushed next door to the hired hand's sleeping quarters. He shook the little man and yelled, "Get up! A storm is coming! Tie things down before they blow away!" The little man rolled over in bed and said firmly, "No sir. I told you, I can sleep when the wind blows."
Enraged by the response, the farmer was tempted to fire him on the spot. Instead, he hurried outside to prepare for the storm. To his amazement, he discovered that all of the haystacks had been covered with tarpaulins. The cows were in the barn, the chickens were in the coops, and the doors were barred. The shutters were tightly secured. Everything was tied down. Nothing could blow away. The farmer then understood what his hired hand meant, so he returned to his bed to also sleep while the wind blew.
I shared this story also with that same group the other night, and this time they got it better than I did. Someone said, “That kind of preparation is the stuff I’ve been doing all my life. For just about every calamity or storm I’m about as prepared as I can be, but what about being prepared for opportunities? I think we tend to stay so focused getting ready for disaster that we tend to miss the joy and the wonder.”
And I think I said something like, “That’s a really great point, and a whole different way of thinking about that story." And inside I was going, “Yes! Yes! Oh God I love my church!” I don’t know how many of us can sleep when the wind blows through our lives, but let’s turn the question around. How many of us manage to sleep through the magic? Sleep through the mystery, the wonder, the love? How many of us sleep through chances to connect, or smell the roses, or listen with our full attention to the still, small voice within?
The great Sufi poet Jalaludin Rumi reflected on the question like this:
Those who don't feel this Love pulling them like a river,
those who don't drink dawn like a cup of spring water
or take in sunset like supper, those who don't want to change, let them sleep.
This Love is beyond the study of theology, that old trickery and hypocrisy.
If you want to improve your mind that way, sleep on.
I've given up on my brain.
I've torn the cloth to shreds and thrown it away.
If you're not completely naked, wrap your beautiful robe of words around you, and sleep.
Keep walking, though there’s no place to get to.
Don’t try to see through the distances. That’s not for human beings.
Move within, but don’t move the way fear makes you move.
Today, like every other day, we wake up empty and frightened.
Don’t open the door to the study and begin reading.Take down a musical instrument. Let the beauty we love be the beauty we do.
There are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground.
And isn’t it possible, and doesn’t the wisdom literature tell us, that if we’ve taken the time to cultivate the inner life, the connective life, a life of spirit and of God, then we probably will be able to sleep, even when the wind blows? Even if some of those surface things get blown away? A few weeks ago I heard another story from Rev. Larry Peers. It’s one of the healing stories from the Gospels and it takes place at the pool in Bethesda. Now the bible doesn’t elaborate on this, but the thing to understand about this pool is that it was a healing pool. It was surrounded by five porches, protected by a short wall, and had a small stair that went from the rim and down into the water. The belief at that time was that every now and then an angel would come by and touch the pool, and this would ripple the water. And whenever this happened, the first person to wade into the water would be healed of whatever was ailing them.
Remember the old Gospel Hymn, Wade In the Water?
(Sing… Wade in the water… Wade in the water, children… Wade in the water… God’s gonna trouble the water….)
This was a popular and powerful song for people in the civil rights movement as they would gather together before a march and sing together, gathering the courage from their collective voices to go out together into the dangerous world.
So the pool at Bethesda was a healing pool, and the legend is that all manner of the sick and the lame would gather around the pool, waiting for the water to ripple, and then rush to try and be first to bathe.
In the story, one day Jesus is in Jerusalem, and goes to the pool at Bethesda, and sees there a man who had been lame for thirty-eight years. And Jesus sees him, and knows that he has been here for a very long time, and asks him a magnificent question. Maybe a trick question, I don’t know. Jesus asks the man, “Do you want to be made whole?” “Do you want to be made whole?” And it’s this quivering moment…, this man who has been lame for thirty eight years, and he answers, “I have no one to help me, when the water is troubled, to put me into the pool. Whenever I try, someone else gets to the water before me.” Isn’t that interesting? When this man is asked “Do you want to be made whole?” He does not say yes! He is not prepared. The answer he gives, the first thing out of his mouth, is his same old story. The most important question of his life, and all he can do is repeat the story he’s been stuck in. “I have no one to help me. When the water is troubled, others get there first.” But that wasn’t even the question! Jesus didn’t ask him for his story. Jesus asked him, Do you want to be made whole? Do you want to be made whole?
And how many of us, when we are going about our business, going about our days, how often do we stumble across some unexpected ripple on the water, and we don’t even know it? Or can’t find it within ourselves to say “yes,” to some opportunity for love, or some chance to grow, or some spectacular fall colors, or some chance to connect with something higher and holier than we are? And instead of saying “Yes!” Instead of cultivating the attitude of believing that we can be made whole, we say some version of, “I have no one to help me. Others get there before me.” Or, “I’ve got to get the shopping done," or the laundry, or I’ve got to get the report filed, or the presentation organized, or I’m too busy, or I’m not worthy, or whatever we feel is chasing us around and running our lives? Or some other variation on the same old story?
I’m not saying it’s not a nice thing, and even a privilege, and maybe even healing, to be asked to share our same old story. I’m suggesting that that isn’t the question. Do you want to be made whole?
Are you prepared to say yes? When the water starts to move, will you have the courage to wade in? And if not, what will you do differently today? This week? This year?
What do you intend for your life?
Now, at the risk of ruining a perfectly decent sermon, I am aware that this sermon was billed as being a reflection on religion and politics, and a few of you might be wondering if I’m even going to get to that. But I wonder if you might consider that this is a reflection on religion and politics? I know many of us are hurting over the state of the world and perhaps especially the tone of our political leaders. There is too much truth to the bumper sticker that says, “If you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention.”
My message today is simple. As people of faith, our calling is to ask the deeper questions. To keep our priorities straight. I think we get lost in the old story of anxiety, depression, confusion, despair, and denial to the extent that we lose sight of the spiritual vision that helps and holds and heals us. When we lose our focus on the things that truly feed the human soul. When we stop asking what brings wholeness to the world. When we lose our own grounding, our own deep, deep knowing of the things that nourish and sustain Life. I am suggesting that our calling as people of faith is to put first things first, and work to create the space for others to do the same.
May you be made whole.