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Delivered at the United Church of Jaffrey
December 3rd, 2017
A Vital Mystery
The clock radio on Cary’s bedside table clicks on. It is still dark outside, but the digital display does not lie — it is 6:30 AM. In my groggy state, the voice of the NPR commentator sounds absurdly perky. Cary groans, leans over and turns off the radio.
I have peculiar feeling.
For many hours I have been asleep.
And now I am awake.
My mind is climbing out from under the influence of something — a state of being, a dream. But before I even open my eyes, that reality — the reality of my dream, has evaporated into thin air.
The place that my mind and body has inhabited for the last 8 hours, is utterly gone!
It’s almost like it never existed at all…
And, indeed, we are all very familiar with this quality of dreams — they are insubstantial.
When we talk of things that have no basis in reality, we often call those things dreams.
There’s nothing earth shattering about these observations. They are quite second nature to us.
We sleep, we dream.
We wake up. We live.
But think about it this way…
I just asked Mister Google how much an average human being sleeps, and he told me that an average person spends about ⅓ of his or her life asleep.
I just turned 52 years old.
That means I’ve been awake for 35 years, and I have slept for a about 17.
I wonder what I’ve been up to all those years!
The fact that we have very little real idea what our minds are doing for immense swaths of our lives — years and years — is a remarkable fact about the nature of our being.
It means that the unknown is an ever-present reality in our lives.
We are, at all times and at every instant of our lives, a eye-blink away from a deep mystery.
And this mystery — this place where the rules of cause and effect do not apply,
this strange place,
this landscape of dreams
Where almost anything can happen —
It is not in some alternate universe
It is not accessed through some glowing sci-fi portal or through the back of a wardrobe.
This mystery is within us.
Though it is often difficult to remember, and equally hard to understand, this mystery is a vital part of what makes us who we are.
every once in very great while…
I remember my dream.
Sometimes, I wake up, and the dream I’ve just had leaves such a strong impression that it continues to affect me even after my day begins.
There are even a handful of dreams that I remember years afterwards.
May I tell you about one of these?
This is not one of those dreams that has a story — or maybe it was, but if it was, the story has vanished long ago.
The memory I have is of a single, powerful moment in the dream.
In the dream I was lying on my back, on the sand, looking at the sky.
Looking up, all I could only see were clouds and the sky, but somehow I knew (as you somehow know things in dreams) that I was at St. Kilda’s — a beach in New Zealand, where my family sometimes went when I was a child.
A wave washed over my legs.
The tide was coming in.
And as the next wave came in — a little farther this time — I came to an awareness, in my dream.
The awareness was not that I was in danger — though I suppose that was part of it.
The awareness I had, as I lay there — was that I was on the edge —
As the tide came in, I was submerged up to my waist in the ocean
My head and my shoulders were on land….
My eyes were looking up at the heavens
And my spine was at rest in the sand.
I was in-between four dimensions — the sea, the land, the earth and the sky…
When I woke from this dream, I felt strangely elated.
I did not struggle to understand its meaning.
I knew exactly what it meant.
The dream had taken me to the edge,…
Where I experienced in-between-ness…
And this being on the edge…
This in-between-ness… is threatening in way…
but it is also comforting.
It is threatening because you cannot be near the primordial immensity of the ocean or the eternity of the sky without being afraid of that mystery…
And it is comforting, because, no matter how foreboding the ocean, or how limitless the sky — there can be no question that I am no different from these things.
I am made of seawater and sky.
And for this reason — that in-between place is, in a way, my eternal place — the place where I am now, and forever will be.
Dreaming or conscious
Alive or dead.
Where We Belong
It seems to me that this in-between-ness is a keenly religious concern.
When we find ourselves on the edge — confronted by the inevitable challenge of our mortality,
We are humbled by a mystery that cannot be fathomed.
This is a moment of religious desperation.
A moment when try, in vain, to tame the ultimate
Consider this morning’s gospel readings.
In the reading from Mark, Jesus describes a vision of the end of time, when, he says
the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven,
This apocalyptic vision has a dream-like quality.
The action, in this scene, takes place on an immense stage, placing humans in a cosmological in-between place. The actors in this drama are not other humans, but, the sun, the moon, the stars and the heavens.
And here we also find the presence of the divine.
Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in clouds’ with great power and glory. Then he will send out the angels, and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven.
This is a description of the end of the world.
And as was the custom in Jewish apocalyptic literature of the first century, the end of time was always described as a time of judgment when the virtuous would be gathered to everlasting bliss, and everyone else would be cast into the fiery pit.
While I acknowledge that apocalyptic literature, with its parting clouds and its throne surrounded by angels, and its sheep and goats, and its heaven and hell is a real strain of biblical literature — I will tell you right now that I will refuse to use it as a way to categorically justify Christian righteousness.
I don’t do fire and brimstone.
I don’t do fire and brimstone because it has been used, over and over through the centuries, to justify violence against non-Christians.
I don’t do fire and brimstone because when we Christians simply assume that our salvation is a done deal, we become complacent, self-righteous, and lacking in curiosity.
But mostly, I don’t do fire and brimstone, because it is too easy.
Fire and brimstone lets us off the hook.
It’s weird, cause it looks dream like.
It resembles that place on the edge, where the we lie, naked, in between the ocean and the sky —
But instead of acknowledging our irrefutable place within that miracle of ocean and sky —
Instead of returning us to the great motion of energy and matter from whence we came —
Fire and brimstone sets us apart
When mystery is near, fire and brimstone tries to tame the ultimate — providing us with the illusion that we have the answer.
“You made the right choice” it says — “You are elect, you are raptured, you are saved.”
May I say that, in my humble opinion, no religious tradition should offer categorical, easy answers.
Easy answers limit the mystery.
And religion should not be about limiting mystery — it should be about placing oneself within mystery
Faith is trusting that the mystery — the terrifying and limitless mystery that is always a mere blink away — is where we belong.
The Moment of Faith
Jesus shows us how this is done.
The reading from Matthew that Cynthia read for us does not take place on at the end of human civilization — this is the story of a deeply personal edge — the prayerful moment when Jesus comes to terms with his own death.
We enter the Garden of Gethsemane with Jesus on the night of his betrayal.
He is not alone — the gospel says that He took with him Peter and the two sons of Zebedee, with him.
He said to them, “I am deeply grieved, even to death; remain here, and stay awake with me.” And going a little farther, he threw himself on the ground and prayed, “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet not what I want but what you want.”
When mystery was near, Jesus threw himself on the ground and prayed.
He was tempted — just as you and I would be — to take the easy answer.
“Let this cup pass from me.”
But then, in the same sentence, before he can even take another breath he repents…
“…yet not what I want but what you want.”
If you will allow me, I claim the poet’s prerogative and substitute the beautifully solemn language that Luke uses at this moment — from the old King James:
“Not my will, but thine be done.”
This is the moment of faith —
This is the moment that we all have faced, or will face, at some point in our lives…
when the circumstances of our mortality brings us edge of eternity, and all we can do is throw ourselves on the ground and pray.
At such moment, it is only human to ask for a reprieve…
To ask that the cup be taken away.
And perhaps — just perhaps, if we have the emotional wherewithal,
the strength of humility
If we are not asleep, but awake to faith…
It is possible to give the self over – to pass into embrace of mystery.
Eternity as Story
What a strange sermon!
Gospel readings are almost always surprising.
Sometimes they take us to unfamiliar places.
Today is the first Sunday of Advent — and I have been preaching about the odd in-between place on the edge of mortality.
How does all this relate to hope?
How are we concerned, this morning, with our anticipation of the birth of Christ?
We are blessed, brothers and sisters in Christ, with a religion that gives us its wisdom through story.
And that story takes us through the life of a man
The life of a divine man.
And through this story, we encounter, time and again, the vital realities of our own lives.
The circle begins and ends
Birth, life, death, birth life death…
The child sleeping, away in the manger
Is an essential expression of eternity — just as the old woman in her death bed, is also the expression of eternity.
And if it is true — that we are stardust —
Then both the manger and the deathbed
Are expressions of our hope.
Our hope in the mystery of eternity.
I am reminded of the words that my father said to me shortly before he died.
“God was here before I was born, God has been here during my life, and God will be here when I am gone.”