Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Sermon: "What is Usual is not What is Always" (Delivered 3-8-09)

First Reading Mark 4:26-32
Jesus said, “The Kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, and would sleep and rise, night and day; and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how. The earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head. But when the grain is ripe, at once he goes in with his sickle because the harvest has come.”

Jesus also said, “With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it? It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; yet, when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that [even] the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.”

Second Reading by Jane Hirshfield
What is usual is not what is always.
As sometimes, in old age, hearing comes back.

Footsteps resume their clipped edges,
birds quiet for decades migrate back to the ear.

Where were they? By what route did they return?

A woman mute for years
forms one perfect sentence before she dies

The bitter young man tires;
the aged one sitting now in his body is tender,
his face carries no regret for his choices.

What is usual is not what is always, the day sings again.
It is all it can offer.

Not ungraspable hope, not the consolation of stories.
Only the reminder that there is exception.

The cue ball, thanks to expertly administered English, curved around the red number 3-ball, struck the side rail, rolled back across the table, glanced off the blue-striped 10-ball knocking it into the side pocket, and then continued rolling until it came to a stop in perfect alignment with the 8-ball and the corner pocket. Game over.

Let me set the scene. I was 18. I was back at home for the summer after my first year in college. My grades had not been bad, though if you had paid attention to where I had spent my time you would have imagined I was planning to major in pool… which, needless to say, was not offered as a major.

A few weeks after returning home I received a call from my childhood minister asking if I would like to volunteer with the caring committee. He asked if I would like to pay visits to a man named Ernie who spent his days at home and alone save for his daily morning visit to the nursing home to visit his wife who was dying from cancer. I agreed to visit him. Ernie lived next to the town Senior Center, the town Senior Center with a seldom-used but immaculately kept pool table. And, it was Ernie who had made that beautiful shot leaving the cue ball perfectly placed and setting himself up for any easy shot to beat me… for the third straight time. Yes, Ernie, whose hands shook when he held the pool cue… Ernie, whose eyesight was failing him… Ernie, who claimed to forget whether he was stripes or solids, had pulled off another miracle shot (or so it seemed) and snatched victory from the jaws of defeat. What is usual is not what is always. There is exception. It may be one thing to expect the unexpected, but how could anyone have seen that one coming? Ministry has its unexpected moments for sure.

As in, when the man who joined the church a few years earlier claiming not really to like religion all that much, stating that he is here for the social events, alluding to spending the hour in worship passing time before coffee hour… as in, when this man sends you an email asking for guidance in learning how to pray.

As in, when the person who comes to this church bearing the scars of their religious past or their family past… when this person comes here hurting and tender and edgy and angry… as in, when this person finds in this religious community not only healing but transformation.

As in, when someone in this community takes up something they never expected they would: the one who is awkward around children volunteers in religious education or the one who is deeply shy enrolls in the preaching practicum. I see this play out in the life of this church when we are doing what we should be doing. Our church declares that what is usual does not have to be what is always.

My words this morning are words of resistance. They speak to act of resisting that soundtrack which plays on repeat in our minds and in our hearts, in our imaginations and in our spirit. I am talking about resistance to whatever script we know so well that we can recite by memory, the script that tells us what we can expect. I want to talk about resistance in terms of silencing that tyrannical voice, that voice of fate that says, “You can see where this is going.” “You know how this is going to turn out.”

Last week, I delivered a sermon on “The Danger of Heightened Expectations.” In that sermon, I addressed that pressure that is often wedded to privilege that tells us that we are always supposed to come out on top, always win, never fail. This week’s sermon deals with the other side of the equation. To the extent that we have written a script for how our lives are supposed to play out and for what we can expect, might we prevent or limit surprise, miracle, exception from entering into our lives?

This idea is challenging. As Unitarian Universalists we have through the years thought of ourselves more as the agents of history’s unfolding much more than we have thought of ourselves as the passive passengers on a predestined path. To quote one of the leading ministers in our movement, “we’ve tended to see ourselves as the leaven and not the bread.” But I would argue that even for those of us who consider ourselves to be the authors of our own destiny, the spiritual practice of keeping ourselves open to exception can be tremendously important.

What would such a spiritual practice look like? How do we keep our eyes and hearts open to the possibility of surprise? I would say that one of the theological ideas from our tradition that we might have to contend with is the one that has lifted up the sacredness of the ordinary. It seemed like not so many years ago that spiritual practice groups in our churches were focusing on books like After the Ecstasy, the Laundry by Jack Kornfield. Kornfield, and spiritual guides like him, helped us to develop a spirituality that said that the sacred is not segregated from our everyday existence, but rather that God or the Holy is infused in all being, in every person, in every blade of grass and dirty coffee cup. These teachings drew from the wisdom of Whitman and Thoreau and Emerson who saw the ordinary as sacred.

Do not get me wrong. These teachings are not bad. They have positively impacted our faith and our spiritual practice. But, this morning I want to spend some time focusing on the other side. I want to talk about a spiritual practice that looks to the exceptions, the miracles, those times when what is usual is not what is always.

The well known wedding hymn “Surprised by Joy” begins with the lyrics, “Surprised by Joy no song can tell, no thought can compass.” I would ask you to take a moment to think of a time in your life when you were expecting one thing, but something else happened, something far better than what you had expected. I ask that you take a moment to reflect: has anything ever entered into your life that no song can tell and no thought can compass?

The remarkable poet Jane Hirshfield is the author of the poem whose lines I’ve woven in and out of my words this morning. Her poems have a quality of disturbing beauty, and her last two lines are startling. She writes, “Not ungraspable hope, not the consolation of stories / Only the reminder that there is exception.”

And this is so striking in its denial. Not hope. How can you possibly say “not hope” when we have been challenged as a nation to be audacious in our hoping? And how can you say no to the consolation of stories when we know the immense power of narrative and story? And what are we left with? Exception?

And just then, just as I am about to shout out my words of resistance at the poet, just as I am about to pronounce her ideas to be silly, I go back there in my memory to that pool table in the Wayland Senior Center. I go back to that memory of an unsteady old man sharking me at pool. I know what it feels like to stand in the presence of exception, of surprise.

I find myself ever restless with what is usual. Now, don’t get me wrong. My usual life is pretty good, but usual is not what I live for. It is a spiritual challenge to walk down the street, to go to work, to go to church, to go to school, to entertain family, to volunteer, and to go into all of these everyday tasks without a pre-prepared script for how we think things will turn out. We are good at writing such accurate scripts for our lives. Those scripts are written down in our day-planners or on the sticky notes on our desks. They are taped to our bedroom mirrors.

All of us, any of us can be so busy with our lists of things to do, so involved in following the script that we miss the surprise that life holds out for us. If we are living the expected we have no room in our hearts for the unexpected, even when it arrives. If we are blind to the unexpected, we won’t see it when it is before our very eyes—we will see only what we expect to see.

And there is danger in this. The danger is that we can become disheartened by the expected, even when what we expect is good. What we expect can lead to boredom and going through the motions. The danger is that we forget that it is possible for us to be agents of change. If we are able to see the unexpected, to welcome it into our lives, we can then work for it to happen. We can help it to multiply.

Even in ministry, even in this vocation where those who are ministers are supposed to be able to see the signs and recognize the miracles, I find that I can fall into that trap where my heart is closed, my eyes are blinded, and my expectations keep me from, as Annie Dillard put it, “abetting creation so that it need not play to an empty house.”

Even if the story of our lives has been good, we still need to be open, to be brave enough to realize that the best part of our story may not have been told. When our lives take a turn for the worse, the expectations are what weigh us down. We really don’t know what the ending is going to be. We can have our hopes, our dreams our goals, but we don’t know. The unexpected happens.

Anything can happen. Our faith teaches us this. We say that there is still more light to break forth in this world. We claim that we possess an evolving faith. We declare that the canon is not sealed. We sing, “Faith of the larger liberty, source of the light expanding, law of the church that is to be old bondage not withstanding.” May we develop the capacity to behold:

Exception… in every singing day.

Exception… against every one of our expectations.

Exception… in every modest mustard seed.

Exception… in every life in this room and in this church, in each person of every theology, every color, every nationality, every age.

Look! Look to those moments when the story goes off the tracks and even the word “hope” is far, far too limited a word to use for what may happen.