Here is a service I led at the Weathersfield Congregational Church, VT on July 25th:
First Congregational Church of Wethersfield, Vermont
July 25, 2010
Welcome and opening words:
Read Mary Oliver’s Imagine from Evidence, p. 63
I don’t care for adjectives, yet the world
fills me with them.
And even beyond what I see, I imagine more.
Seeing, for example, with understanding,
or with acceptance and humility and
into the heart of the bristly, locked-in worm
just as it’s becoming what we call the luna,
that green tissue-winged, strange, graceful
Will death allow such transportation of the eye?
Will we see then into the breaking open
of the kernel of corn?
the sprout plunging upward through the damp clod
and into the sun?
Well, we will all find out, each of us.
And what would we be, beyond the yardstick,
beyond supper and dollars,
if we were not filled with such wondering?
Opening Hymn: #370 O - God of Earth and Altar
35 Vengeance is mine, and recompense, for the time when their foot shall slip; because the day of their calamity is at hand, their doom comes swiftly. 36 Indeed the Lord will vindicate his people, have compassion on his servants, when he sees that their power is gone, neither bond nor free remaining. 37 Then he will say: Where are their gods, the rock in which they took refuge, 38 who ate the fat of their sacrifices, and drank the wine of their libations? Let them rise up and help you, let them be your protection! 39 See now that I, even I, am he; there is no god besides me. I kill and I make alive; I wound and I heal; and no one can deliver from my hand. 40 For I lift up my hand to heaven, and swear: As I live forever, 41 when I whet my flashing sword, and my hand takes hold on judgment; I will take vengeance on my adversaries, and will repay those who hate me. 42 I will make my arrows drunk with blood, and my sword shall devour flesh— with the blood of the slain and the captives, from the long-haired enemy. 43 Praise, O heavens,
Judges 7: 1 Then Jerubbaal (that is, Gideon) and all the troops that were with him rose early and encamped beside the spring of Harod; and the camp of Midian was north of them, below the hill of Moreh, in the valley. 2 The Lord said to Gideon, "The troops with you are too many for me to give the Midianites into their hand. Israel would only take the credit away from me, saying, "My own hand has delivered me.' 3 Now therefore proclaim this in the hearing of the troops, "Whoever is fearful and trembling, let him return home.' " Thus Gideon sifted them out; twenty-two thousand returned, and ten thousand remained. 4 Then the Lord said to Gideon, "The troops are still too many; take them down to the water and I will sift them out for you there. When I say, "This one shall go with you,' he shall go with you; and when I say, "This one shall not go with you,' he shall not go." 5 So he brought the troops down to the water; and the Lord said to Gideon, "All those who lap the water with their tongues, as a dog laps, you shall put to one side; all those who kneel down to drink, putting their hands to their mouths, you shall put to the other side." 6 The number of those that lapped was three hundred; but all the rest of the troops knelt down to drink water. 7 Then the Lord said to Gideon, "With the three hundred that lapped I will deliver you, and give the Midianites into your hand. Let all the others go to their homes." 8 So he took the jars of the troops from their hands, and their trumpets; and he sent all the rest of Israel back to their own tents, but retained the three hundred. The camp of Midian was below him in the valley. 9 That same night the Lord said to him, "Get up, attack the camp; for I have given it into your hand. 15. Gideon …. worshiped… and he returned to the camp of Israel, and said, "Get up; for the Lord has given the army of Midian into your hand." 16 After he divided the three hundred men into three companies, and put trumpets into the hands of all of them, and empty jars, with torches inside the jars, 17 he said to them, "Look at me, and do the same; when I come to the outskirts of the camp, do as I do. 18 When I blow the trumpet, I and all who are with me, then you also blow the trumpets around the whole camp, and shout, "For the Lord and for Gideon!' " 19 So Gideon and the hundred who were with him came to the outskirts of the camp at the beginning of the middle watch, when they had just set the watch; and they blew the trumpets and smashed the jars that were in their hands. 20 So the three companies blew the trumpets and broke the jars, holding in their left hands the torches, and in their right hands the trumpets to blow; and they cried, "A sword for the Lord and for Gideon!" 21 Every man stood in his place all around the camp, and all the men in camp ran; they cried out and fled. 22 When they blew the three hundred trumpets, the Lord set every man's sword against his fellow and against all the army.
1 Let mutual love continue. 2 Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it. 3 Remember those who are in bonds, as though you were in bonds with them; those who are being tortured, as though you yourselves were being tortured.
Sermon: The Summer of My Disconcertion
(disconcertion: to be thrown into confusion; to be unsettled).
This is not really a sermon. It’s more of a sharing of what’s been happening in my heart and spirit this summer. A kind of confession, I guess, but one which I hope will provide you food for thought.
I’d like to start with a little quiz on American History. The answer to all the following questions is the same person. If you think you know the answer, raise your hand, but don’t say anything out loud.
1. What person, profoundly shaped by his Calvinist, Puritan faith, who grew up in a Congregational Church, and who as a young man publicly professed in that church his opposition to slavery, became one of the most important and influential anti-slavery leaders in the U.S.?
2. Who was one of the first white persons in U.S. history not only to believe deeply in the full equality of the races but also to put into practice that belief in his daily life – by welcoming African-Americans into his home and sharing his table with them as equals, respecting their intelligence and leadership qualities as equals, and supporting them for positions of highest office in what he hoped would be a multi-racial society and government?
3. Who did Frederick Douglas, the great African-American leader, call, “our noblest American hero, one whose name stands for all that is desirable in government, noble in life, orderly and beautiful in society,” and said – “While I myself lived for black folks, he died for black folks.”
4. Who did Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau regard as not only one of our greatest American patriots, greater even than Washington, but on a level of moral and spiritual authority and greatness with Jesus Christ?
5. Of whom does a modern scholar say, “He killed slavery, sparked the Civil War and Seeded Civil Rights?”
6. Whose martyrdom became the inspiration for a song which was sung by the Union armies as they marched into battle, a song which repeats his name?
Answer: John Brown.
John Brown's body lies a-mouldering in the grave,
John Brown's body lies a-mouldering in the grave,
But his soul goes marching on.
Glory, glory, hallelujah, :|
Glory, glory, hallelujah,
His soul goes marching on.
He's gone to be a soldier in the Army of the Lord,
He's gone to be a soldier in the Army of the Lord,
His soul goes marching on.
John Brown died that the slaves might be free,
John Brown died that the slaves might be free,
His soul goes marching on.
Last fall was the 150th anniversary of John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry, VA, and his subsequent execution by hanging, on December 2, 1859. Brown’s plan was to seize the federal arsenal in Harpers Ferry, and with his small band of abolitionists, both white and black, free the slaves in the area, flee with them into the mountains and create a base community there, from which they could conduct guerilla warfare which would provoke widespread rebellion of slaves throughout the South leading eventually to the end of slavery and the ultimate incorporation of all freed slaves into a multi-racial society in which all would be truly equal. It was a breathtakingly utopian vision which, unfortunately for John Brown, had some fatal flaws. Most immediately, for a variety of reasons, one of which was his compassion for the hostages he had taken in the raid, he lingered too long at the arsenal, and was captured. A larger flaw was that he had over-estimated the readiness of slaves to take up arms and rebel against their masters on a moment’s notice, especially at the instigation of a white man. So he was tried, convicted of treason, inciting rebellion, and murder, and hanged. During the period between his arrest and his hanging, he spoke frequently in his prison cell with family, friends and reporters, and his calm dignity, deep faith and willingness to die for his beliefs impressed many, even his enemies. He was vilified as the incarnation of evil in the slave-holding south, and crowned as a hero and saint in the North. Emerson said he would “make the gallows as glorious as the cross,” and a later black reformer, W.E.B. DuBois, called Brown “the white American who had come closest to touching the real souls of black folk.” Unlike many of his fellow abolitionists, who were opposed to slavery but believed that blacks were inferior to whites and could never live side by side with whites in a free and equal society, Brown actually created and lived in biracial communities which practiced equality.
The 150th anniversary, with its many symposia, celebrations, re-enactments, etc. passed by me unawares – maybe because I was recuperating from knee surgery and otherwise preoccupied. But earlier this summer Ellen and I happened to be driving by Harpers Ferry National Historic Park, toward the beginning of a two-month-long car-trip that took us to family and friends all the way to the west coast and back, and we said, “let’s stop.” It was late, the visitor’s center was about to close, but there was time to discover in the bookstore a 500-page biography of John Brown on sale for $10. Never one to pass by a good book bargain I bought it and read it. I was fascinated by Brown’s life and stunned by my own ignorance of it. How could I be so ignorant of the significance of the life of so important a figure in American history, and a fellow-Congregationalist to boot? Had I missed something? Is John Brown listed among the famous UCCers of the past and I just hadn’t noticed? (Answer: no, you won’t find any mention of John Brown on the UCC website).
I was reading the life of John Brown during May – and of course, all the while I was reading, oil was spewing into the Gulf of Mexico from the Deepwater Horizon blowout. That oil gusher cast a pall over our entire trip, not least of all because we were using so much gasoline. I couldn’t help but make some connections. John Brown was confronting the great evil of his time: slavery. He was passionate in his opposition to slavery and the fundamental system that supported it. Here today I was confronted with another great evil, but of a very different kind: an evil that was taking life wantonly, rendering much of the Gulf of Mexico and its shores poisonous, devastating life at every level and destroying a way of life for tens of thousands of people. But if one wanted to strike a blow against this evil, where did one aim?
The more I learned about John Brown, the more I think I came to understand why we don’t know more about him: he is a very controversial figure in a way that strikes at the very core of our fears: he was a religious fanatic and a terrorist. He was a Congregational version of Osama bin Laden. Moreover he has become an inspiration to groups like the Army of God, the militant anti-abortion group that, among other things, nurtured Scott Roeder’s vigilante murder of abortion physician, Dr. George Tiller in Wichita, KS in May of 2009. Three years before the raid on Harpers ferry, John Brown led a group of anti-slavery men in a raid in Pottawattamie, KS in which they pulled five pro-slavery men from their homes, took them into the woods and murdered them, an event that came to be known as the Pottawattamie Massacre. The arguments that John Brown used to justify those murders are very similar to those that violent, militant anti-abortionists have used in our time to justify the murder of doctors who perform abortions: the cause is a righteous one, it is a holy war against a great evil which cannot be overcome by ordinary, legal, pacificist means.
John Brown drew upon an old and powerful tradition which has its roots in the Old Testament. We heard read this morning a couple of examples of that tradition. John Brown believed from an early age that he had been called and chosen by God to be a Gideon in the cause of racial justice, a warrior who would not hesitate to use the sword if necessary, to end the great and terrible evil of slavery. To fully appreciate Brown’s beliefs, you have to appreciate what was happening in this country in his time. Slavery was not just socially entrenched, it was seen to be rooted in the Constitution, approved by the founders of the nation like Washington and Jefferson, upheld by the Congress in Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 (which required federal marshals to arrest an alleged runaway slave and return him or her to his or her master, and upheld by the Supreme Court in decisions like the Dred Scott Decision of 1857, that ruled that slaves were not protected by the Constitution, could never be citizens of the United States, could not sue in court and that as private property, slaves could not be taken away from their owners without due process. Brown was scornful of his fellow abolitionists who were all talk, but no action. He believed that slavery was so deeply entrenched politically, legally socially and religiously in this country, that only an act of violence that would strike fear into the hearts of slave-owners could begin to dislodge it. He saw himself as called by God to strike that blow. Read Deut 32:39-42 again.
Now there is a great deal to admire in John Brown. He was way ahead of his time in his commitment to racial equality and the full humanity and potential of every human being regardless of their race or gender (he was, by the way, also an advocate for women’s rights). He was a deeply religious man who was willing to suffer and die for his beliefs; he was compassionate, especially toward the down-trodden. He took seriously and literally the words of Hebrews 13: “remember those who are in bonds as though you were in bonds with them, and those who are being tortured as though you yourselves were being tortured.” Surely we need to have that kind of empathy!
Perhaps by now you can understand why I called this talk “The Summer of My Disconcertment” – forgive the bad pun and the obscure allusion to Shakespeare’s and Steinbeck’s “The winter of our discontent.” It’s disconcerting to realize that someone you are disposed to admire because he devoted his entire life to ridding the world of an evil you despise has become a hero to those whose beliefs and actions you feel are despicable. It’s disconcerting to be appalled by an event in the Gulf that you feel is a great evil and to realize as you’re driving along visiting family and friends that you’re part of the problem. It’s disconcerting to visit a quiet shrine in North Elba, NY, as Ellen and I did few days ago, where John Brown is buried and where he lived for a time in an interracial community, and realize that on the other side of the world our nation is engaged in two wars fighting enemies whose mind-set and methods of operation are very similar to this man who is being celebrated and honored here. It’s disconcerting to want to enlist in the good fight for the preservation of life on this planet and not know where to begin because, as Pogo said, “we have met the enemy and he is us.”
Let me throw one more element into this ragout of disconcertion. There is another John in my life. My son John is a marine naturalist who is devoted to a life of meditation. He sees a deep connection between the outer world of violence against nature and the inner world of constant mental chatter, on the one hand, and between an outer world of peaceful harmony among all creatures and an inner world of silence on the other hand. And I think he sees a causal connection. The constant chatter in our minds in all its many manifestations, and our deep attachment to that chatter, essentially causes the disharmony in the outer world – things like that oil gusher. Conversely, if we could as the human species find and dwell in the silence which is also always inside us but which we have mostly drowned out with our mental chatter, if we could dwell in that inner silence, then we would see in a new way as Mary Oliver speaks in her poem, “see with understanding, or with acceptance and humility and without understanding, into the heart of the bristly, locked-in worm just as it’s becoming what we call the luna, that green tissue-winged, strange, graceful, fluttering thing” – and when we could see in that new way, that would ultimately heal the outer world. We would be in harmony with all living creatures.
I think he’s on to something. Woven through this summer has been that realization: that just may be what it will take to transform ourselves and the world. So simple. And so difficult. It’s disconcerting to realize that my own son may have put his finger right on the problem and opened a path to its solution and I may be too old and stuck in my ways to be able to follow him. But then again, maybe I’m not! We’ll see!
Introduce this hymn: I chose 3 stirring hymns for this service. I wonder if we can we sing this hymn ironically? Think of it in a completely different way – a spiritual war that is not a war at all but the very opposite of war? Let’s try.
Hymn: #291- March On, O Soul, with Strength
Prayers. Ask for prayer requests
Almighty God of the morning, of sunlight on water, of morning doves and daisies, who has refreshed the earth with dew and darkness, refresh our hearts and make us new. The unchanging mountains speak to us of you, as does the surface of the sea; the fragile wings of insects bear witness to you, as do the claws of a tiger. We learn from you the visions of prophets and the passions of saints. And yet you do ever remain a hidden source, a mystery. We praise you for what we know and we stand in wonder before your secret depths. In a world where wounds come partly by accident and partly by intention, help us to see if there are any injuries we might have inflicted. Help us to let go of any injuries we feel we may have received from another, forgiving as Christ forgave, lest in our rancor with the past we betray the possibility of the present. O God, be ever present with us here this day; when the times get tough, may we know that you are with us. Over against the summer sounds of tractors in the meadows, dogs barking, chain saws, mowers on the lawn, and at night the hoot of the owl, we lift our hymns of praise to you. Through the noise of cars passing and trucks changing gears, the shouts of children and the roar of motorcycles, we send forth a silent prayer of our deepest longings…. ( from Be Present Here, the prayers of +Shirley Harris Crockett).
Hymn: #399 – Once to Every Man and Nation
Closing Words: A Singular and Cheerful Life, in Mary Oliver, Evidence, , p. 71
The singular and cheerful life
of any flower
in anyone’s garden
or any still unowned field—
if there are any—
by the heart,
by its color,
by its obedience
to the holiest of laws:
until you are not.
Pale violet bull thistle,
Morning glories curling
through the field corn;
and those princes of everything green –
of which there are truly
an unaccountable company,
on ts singular stem
to rise and ripen.
What, in the earth world,
is there not to be amazed by
and to be steadied by
and to cherish?
Oh, my dear heart,
my own dear heart,
full of hesitations,
questions, choice of directions,
look at the world.
Behold the morning glory,
the meanest flower, the ragweed, the thistle.
Look at the grass.