Monday, August 24, 2009

Sermon: "Return to the Springs" (August 23, 2009)

Reading
by Jacob Trapp
I am amazed to the point of ecstasy by the miracle of awareness.
Life brings me its freshness as an ineffable gift.
Every moment renews my vision.
Death is permission granted [for] other modes of life to exist,
So that everything may be ceaselessly renewed.
The ploughshare of sorrow breaking the heart,
Opens up new sources of life.
The land bursts again in bloom.
The possible and the future are one.
The possible strives to come into being, and can be, if we help.
Nothing grows, flowers, bears fruit save by giving.
All that we try to save in ourselves wastes and perishes.
All things ripen for the giving’s sake,
And in the giving are consummated.

Sermon
The inspiration for my words this morning comes from the writings of the late UU minister Jacob Trapp, a humanist-mystic (that is not an oxymoron) and poet. Trapp was a mentor to John Buehrens who, in turn, was one of my mentors.

“Renewal” was one of the perennial themes that Trapp returned to time and time again in his writings. When I say the word “renewal” today there are some dominant images that come to mind. When I speak of renewal let me be clear that I am not talking about television commercials in soft focus that feature models with unblemished skin and a voice-over by a narrator with a smooth, luxurious voice. Nor am I talking about items found on the product aisle of a drugstore that are described using far too many adjectives. “A sensuous blend of cucumber and guava.” “Refreshes, rejuvenates, and restores.” Further, I am not speaking of day-spas where people lounge around in bleached-white robes with cucumber slices over their eyes.

Being a minister who writes about renewal must be pretty cushy, eh? Well, when Jacob Trapp brings up renewal he is talking about something rather different than manicures, pedicures, and organic beauty products.

Let me run through some of the many things that he means when he talks about renewal. One of the things he talks about is a “return to the springs,” which is also the title of a book of collected lectures and sermons. This return to the springs is a return the primitive by which he means a return to the original or the first. John Buehrens supplies a metaphor for how we might think about this. He mentions that the city of Dallas is fed by the Trinity River. By the time the Trinity River reaches Dallas, it is but a trickle of pollution, “full of poisonous accretions, sluggish, and meandering… not unlike what seemed to pass… for religion” in the city.

Buehrens mentions that from time to time he would spot a great blue heron and would marvel that anything sustaining could be extracted from this toxic stream littered with the rusted remains of shopping carts and abandoned tires. However, if you travel upstream, you would eventually come to the headwaters, the source, the spring—the place where the water is life-giving, where it is renewing.

Don’t misunderstand me. Jacob Trapp is not suggesting a return to the past. He would not have us, as Unitarian Universalists, return only to the sermons of Channing, the Universalist Winchester profession of faith, or the Cambridge Platform. He isn’t suggesting that we limit ourselves to “original teachings.” He is not making a historical claim, positive or negative. He is not advocating grumpy nostalgia.

For him, returning to the springs means direct experience. “The world does not lack for wonders, only for a sense of wonder,” just as, to paraphrase John Buehrens again, “the world does not lack for relatedness but only for a sense of deep relatedness, in which our strivings for community and communion with one another can be truly grounded.”

About a year and a half ago I preached a springtime sermon series on the topic of renewal. In that sermon series I talked about the renewal of our bodies and of our emotions and also the renewal of relationships and communities.

When I say the word “renewal” let me again point out that I do not understand this word to be synonymous with being idle or pampered. Renewal is not the same thing as rest. I recently watched the movie The Motorcycle Diaries. This film depicts the story of a young Ché Guevara when he, as a twenty-three year old about to finish medical school, sets out with a companion on a circuitous 5,000 mile motorcycle trip across South America. In the movie, renewal is found not in the hedonistic pleasure pursuits that were the trip’s original purpose. Instead, renewal was found in new understanding and new insight, in seeing the injustices faced by workers in the copper mines, by witnessing the suffering within leper colonies, and by beholding the ruins of Incan civilization and the colonial implications of those ruins.

About mysticism, Jacob Trapp wrote,
“I like to think of mysticism as the art of meeting reality, or the art of richer and deeper awareness. ... It is an experience that comes unbidden ... [It is] a very special experience ... of that Oneness, a rare and wonderful realization of what always is but of which we are seldom aware, flooding in to overwhelm the illusion of aloneness, separateness. ... There are moments when life seems vivid and resplendent, when a more than mortal splendor breaks in, when there is a touch of grandeur and of glory in just being alive. ... [It is] our experience ... of those moments when we're rapturously one with the wonder of all that is.”
So, how do we return to the springs? How do we seek out that which sustains us as well as that which renews us? As I have intimated, it doesn’t necessarily have to do with travel to the headwaters. It doesn’t necessarily have to do with solitude. There isn’t one right way or one wrong way. Sustenance and renewal can be found in solitude and in community, in nature and in church. It can be found in contemplation and in working in solidarity with others for justice. It can be found in the appreciation of art and in the creation of art. The Sufi mystic Rumi said that there are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground. We might likewise say that there are hundreds of paths that allow us to return to the springs.

My favorite story of such a return is an old rabbinic tale from Eastern Europe. This story, that I heard from one of my colleagues, involves a Jewish cobbler in Krakow, Poland who has a series of vivid dreams about a bridge in Rome. He has never visited this bridge, but in his dream there is a bag of treasure hidden under the bridge. As the dreams become more frequent and more intense, the cobbler sets out for Rome. When he reaches the city he sees the bridge, exactly as it appeared in his dream. On the bridge he meets a Roman guardsman. He mentions to the guardsman that he has traveled to this bridge from Poland. Astonished, the guardsman ask him if a cobbler from Krakow. Then, the guardsman admits that he has had a series of dreams about a cobbler in Krakow who has a treasure of gold and jewels buried under his hearth. The story, at least according to my knowledge of it, ends right there.

The meaning of this story is explained by Diana Eck, a professor of religion at Harvard, who has said that if you only know one religion (your own) you don’t know any religion. However, if you know more than one religion, you are able to understand the treasure of your own.

Like the Jewish cobbler from Krakow, I am about to embark on a journey. This afternoon marks the beginning of my sabbatical leave for the next three months. I have no intention of visiting any spas, of putting anything on my body that combines cucumber and guava or that uses the word “zesty” as an adjective. I won’t be searching under bridges or digging up hearths.

At the beginning of the service we held our annual “Gathering of the Waters” ritual. This morning I asked you, when you poured your actual or symbolic or imaginary water, to name a place where you go for sustenance or renewal. The responses this year were similar to those from years past: Water poured from beautiful locations. Water returned from a place of a family gathering, whether that family gathering took place a car ride away or near the Norwegian fjords. Water brought back from a trip to visit a new grandchild. Water brought from a summer garden that has produced plump tomatoes and zucchini. Water from a service trip—a medical mission to Haiti, helping to rebuild New Orleans, or working with Habitat for Humanity.

Thanks to this time of renewal, rejuvenation, and learning with which you have blessed me, I will have the opportunity to discover some metaphorical treasure. I go forth to return to the springs, but then to return here with surprises to share, with insights gleaned, with passion, drive, and focus. And who knows what exactly I will return to—but knowing you, I am delighted to imagine the possibilities.

Be good to one another. Hold this religious community as the precious jewel that it is and share it like the bread and the wine of life with all who hunger and thirst. I love you. I will miss you. And thank you again.