Mary Beth Writes

This is the "Opening Words" and then later in the service, the sermon - that I preached on "For The Time Being" by WH Auden and also from the Gospel of John.  

I belong to a small congregation of Unitarian Universalists. This is directed to people who are asking questions instead of believing creeds. You will probably note the difference.

Thanks.

MB. 

...

Opening Words:

A few weeks ago Meg asked if I could preach today. Most of the adventures of my life happen when I say yes really fast without thinking too much about it. I considered that today would be just after the holidays - which made me remember one of my favorite poems – “For The Time Being” by WH Auden.

I said I’d preach on it and then I told those who needed to know.  then I didn't think too much about it again until last week, when I reread the poem. It is still awesome. It also is filled with deeply Christian images and my deeply Unitarian response was, Argh, not again…  Maybe next time I will preach on Beyonce.

Auden lived 1907 until 1973. He was born in England to a professional family. He was 7 when WWI started and 11 when it ended, so the anxiety of the time would have affected his childhood. He went to private schools and then on to Oxford, where he became a poet and a teacher. He was gay. The man he would fall most deeply in love with lived with him for four years and then left. Auden never loved any other person as much as that partner he lost while still in his 30’s.

He was raised Anglican but did not regard faith as something too deep or personal in his life. Until 1940 when he underwent a spiritual renewal as he observed Nazism overwhelming Europe. He said that while he was being too sophisticated to be religious, religious people had been suffering and dying for deeply humanitarian causes- and his anger and depression at the state of humanity was why he went back to the church.

This is much of the poem we will be thinking about today: I have skipped some part, so by all means find the complete poem at some point. 

from “For The Time Being”

Well, so that is that. Now we must dismantle the tree,
Putting the decorations back into their cardboard boxes --
Some have got broken -- and carrying them up to the attic.
The holly and the mistletoe must be taken down and burnt,
And the children got ready for school. There are enough
Left-overs to do, warmed-up, for the rest of the week --
Not that we have much appetite, having drunk such a lot,
Stayed up so late, attempted -- quite unsuccessfully --
To love all of our relatives, and in general
Grossly overestimated our powers. Once again
As in previous years we have seen the actual Vision and failed
To do more than entertain it as an agreeable
Possibility, once again we have sent Him away,
Begging though to remain His disobedient servant,
The promising child who cannot keep His word for long.

But, for the time being, here we all are,
Back in the moderate Aristotelian city
Of darning and the Eight-Fifteen, where Euclid's geometry
And Newton's mechanics would account for our experience,
And the kitchen table exists because I scrub it.
It seems to have shrunk during the holidays. The streets
Are much narrower than we remembered; we had forgotten
The office was as depressing as this. To those who have seen
The Child, however dimly, however incredulously,
The Time Being is, in a sense, the most trying time of all.

Remembering the stable where for once in our lives
Everything became a You and nothing was an It.

 In the meantime
There are bills to be paid, machines to keep in repair,
Irregular verbs to learn, the Time Being to redeem
From insignificance. The happy morning is over,
The night of agony still to come; the time is noon:
When the Spirit must practice his scales of rejoicing

IV
Chorus

He is the Way.
Follow Him through the Land of Unlikeness;
You will see rare beasts, and have unique adventures.

He is the Truth.
Seek Him in the Kingdom of Anxiety;
You will come to a great city that has expected your return for years.

He is the Life.
Love Him in the World of the Flesh;
And at your marriage all its occasions shall dance for joy.

The Sermon:

Once again as in previous years we have seen the actual Vision and failed
to do more than entertain it as an agreeable Possibility …

I read this poem aloud in a class back in the olden days when I was a seminary student (at Garrett Evangelical Theological Seminary). It was our first day back after the Christmas break; many of us had preached in the previous few weeks, all of us had in one way or another participated in religious services; we were, after all, all on a path to becoming ministers.

By the end of the poem you could have heard a pin drop. It said so well what was so hard to say, even for the professionally religiously bound.  “We have glimpsed the vision and failed to entertain it ….”

We are all so busy doing the things we always do – including celebrating religious holidays – that we forget the Mystery. We forget the Possibility of something beyond our own stories.  We forget that we are wading in the shallow stream of our lives, but around and beyond us is an ocean of power and energy that we barely understand. Maybe the modern language for this is Astronomy or Physics or Astrophysics - science with a side order of questions. What is the mystery in biology that keeps us on our feet - and falling in love, going to war, getting sick, sometimes healing? Why does some literature and music stop us in our tracks? What is this reality around us that we forget to see?

Len and I moved our family from Chicago to Racine when our kids were just youngsters. During our first week in our new home it snowed a big ole Wisconsin snow dump. That next morning our 2-year old - born and raised in the city –climbed onto a kitchen chair, leaned on her tiny elbows to look out the kitchen window at the 40-foot pine trees at the back edge of our yard, blanketed that morning in two feet of sparkling snow. 

She turned to me in the matter-of-fact way of little kids.

“Are those angels?”

Like that.  It’s out there. 

This January we Unitarian Universalists are considering the theme of Possibility.

Here’s my question: If we believe something is going on here then what do we do about it? How do we live into our BEST possibilities?

Most of us already personally know our not-so-great possibilities. Bring on the 3rd helpings. One more sweater on my credit card won’t break it. Probably.  A sweet guy in one of my jail employment groups once said when I asked how them how they spent their weekends when not in jail. “Give me a case of PBR and a soft chair and when I come to it’s Monday and time to go to work.”

Or worse possibilities such as: “If that kid doesn’t obey me I’m going to ….”   Or “I’ll show those women how to respect a man.” Or “I don’t need to consult with scientists or experts, I already know all the best answers.”

Our answer to how do we live into our best possibility is in our UU faith statement. Love. We are “On the Side of Love.”

Why is this so easy to say and so hard to figure out? You tell me what to do when my inbox is filled with requests, and my child is ill or rebellious, and my partner is giving me the side eye, and my mom should probably move to a nursing home which I have no idea how to make happen – and oh yeah, my job isn’t secure and I haven’t slept through the night in the two weeks due to a congestion and stress. Sure, it’s all about love, but where do I jump in? How do I know what to do when there’s so much TO do?

You may have heard of “The Great Commandment”. It’s from chapter 13 of the Gospel of John.

It was just before the Passover Festival. The evening meal was in progress, and Judas was soon to betray Jesus. 

Jesus got up from the meal and wrapped a towel around his waist. After that, he poured water into a basin and began to wash his disciples’ feet. They were astonished that he would act like the lowliest of servants.

He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?”

 Jesus replied, “You do not realize now what I am doing, but later you will understand.”

“No,” said Peter, “you shall never wash my feet.”

Jesus answered, “Unless I wash you, you have no part with me.”

When he had finished, Jesus returned to his place. “Do you understand? A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.”

The Gospel of John is possibly the most “Unitarian Universalist” book in the Christian Bible and this passage is a core value of UU’s.  

The book of John is, as you know, one of the four gospels that tell the story of Jesus life. Scholars say it was written 90-110 years after the death of Jesus. The writer of this Gospel was as far from Jesus as we are from WWI. 

Also, the community in which the writer lived was either Syria or Ephesus. Syria was 500 miles from Jerusalem, Ephesus was 1100 miles.

So a hundred years and hundreds of miles from Jesus’ time and turf – people are trying to understand their religion. What is the official “Christian” message?  What do they need to know and do to live sincere spiritual lives?

They were then kind of like we are now. We don’t come here to earn salvation or skirt damnation - so why are we here?

We come to ask and live-out our questions together.

The community of the writer of John answered these questions by gravitating to, repeating, preaching from and teaching to themselves and their children - stories that made the most sense to their lives. These stories and teachings became the Book of John

One of their unique stories is about the Last Supper when things are going to get dangerous and Jesus knows it. Judas betrays him. Jesus washes the feet of his disciples. And that is when, John says, Jesus says. “Love each other as I have loved you.

This Johannine community has been following big and little rules for a hundred years. What do they claim as their most important truth?

Love each other. Love each other as I loved you.

What does it mean to love each other?

There are three more stories that are ONLY in the Gospel of John.

1. The first is the miracle where Jesus is at a wedding that runs out of wine so Jesus turns water into wine.  This Johannine congregation is saying: Help the young, ordinary, unpowerful people you already love. Help people you already know who needs some assistance. Pay attention to happiness. You don’t have to be perfect.

Len and I once invited 12 friends to a dinner for which we cooked 10 pieces of chicken. These things happen.

The miracle of love starts where we help each other belong to each other. We start by loving the people we already know and like.

 

2. The next Johannine story is more complicated … and very interesting.  Jesus talks to the Samaritan woman at a well; he asks her for a drink from her cup of water. 

Samaritans were not Jews.  Samaria was stereotyped and disrespected like Trump disrespects Mexico; like many people in Israel regard Palestinians.  Overt racism.

Plus; a male never addressed an unknown female - and he REALLY wouldn’t have asked to drink from her cup. Women are unclean, you know? (Which is insane, in any average straight marriage, who is the cleanest person?) According to Jewish law, if a man touched a gentile woman, he would have to go to through a religious deep-cleaning process to get her cooties off him.

Also, Jesus knows, and they discuss, that she has had five husbands! She is disrespected by her OWN community because she has had too many partners, they say. This is why she’s at the well at noon. Respectable people go to the well before breakfast and last thing in the day. That she’s there at high noon says that’s the only time she can get water without being harassed and bullied.

She’s poor, foreign, disrespected, and female. And she’s not begging for “forgiveness” because her story has been hard and complicated.  Through her own struggles, she has apparently come to know herself, to take care of herself, to live without the esteem of her own relatives and village. Instead of groveling - I love the next thing about her. She asks Jesus a LOT of questions. She even sort of argues with him. Let’s claim her! 

25 The woman said, “I know the Messiah is coming. When he comes, he will explain everything to us.”

26 Jesus told her, “I am the Messiah!”

27 Just then his disciples came back. They were shocked to find him talking to a woman. 28 The woman left her water jar beside the well and ran back to the village, telling everyone, 29 “Come and see a man who told me everything I ever did! Could he possibly be the Messiah?” 30 So the people came streaming from the village to see him.

The Johannine community claims THIS story - because it says gentiles, poor people, and women are the first people to recognize the divinity of Jesus.  And recognize a corresponding truth here... Jesus' side of this story is that he first reveals his divinity –to a poor, disrespected, talkative, unknown woman. 

I bet back then, just like now, congregations had more women than men.  We women need something or someone to hang onto in dangerous, sexist societies.  We need someone to see the danger and stereotypes in which we live. And we need someone who wants our love, questions, and service. This is a powerful story for a community to hold onto as sacred and divine.

Love the one your culture says is okay to dismiss. Walk into their chaos, poverty, and longing to be needed and whole.  Be on the side of those people.  Be on the side of women.

 

3. The last story is where Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead. Lazarus is the brother of Mary and Martha, these three have been big supporters of Jesus.  Someone tells Jesus that Lazarus has become sick, but instead of hurrying to their village to help, Jesus keeps on preaching two more days. Then he goes to their home. Mary and Martha are grief-stricken as well as upset; he waited too long, Lazarus died and is in his tomb. Jesus says that Lazarus is just sleeping. They roll their eyes and then they roll back the rock that blocks his tomb. Lazarus stumbles out with his cemetery bandages askew – a first century zombie.

Theologians make sense of this story in this way. This is the last story in John before the sequence of events that will lead to the story of Jesus crucifixion and resurrection. This story is clarifying that Jesus teachings are not rules for tidy living, or the seven secrets to success, or the power of positive thinking, or how to get out of credit card debt.  What this Johannine community is claiming is that love overpowers death. That the God they seek and worship is the God of Love.  

Raising someone from death is obviously a miracle, which was not unscientific to those first century Christians. It’s also a claim as to who their community is following and how they are doing it. Loss and grief will never overcome love.

The path of all life will lead to death. A life of prophetic loving might lead to early death.

But … love will endure past death.

 

So back to; How do we side with love?

The answer is simple. There is no answer. 

Do what we can to muster time, strength, and courage to take care of the people we already like and know and love. Stretch to love those who need help. Know that the love we give does not die.

Love each other as I have loved you.

You will see rare beasts and have unique adventures

 

 

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