If you would like to hear this sermon as preached, press play below:
At five thirty in the morning the electricity went out.
I sat up, dimly aware that something
I tried to turn on the light on my bedside table, and at that moment the power surged
like a winking giant
The digital clock on Cary’s side of the bed was… well it wasn’t anything anymore… It was now an oddly shaped, dead piece of plastic.
I touched Cary on the shoulder.
“The electricity’s out…” I said.
“Go back to sleep” she said…
This was good advice…
but at this point I was awake, and nothing was to be done about it, so I got up and, closing the door, left her (and her cat) to the warm abandon of that mottled landscape of quilts and shadows – was our first bedroom…
It was November.
Cary was pregnant with our first child
And we were living in a third floor walk up
In Somerville, Massachusetts…
a couple miles from Harvard Yard,
and closer still to the fitchburg line
that clanged its way outbound on the hour.
Sitting down at the kitchen table, I watched the light fill the alleys between the tenements. The world’s speckled hum rose up from the avenue, where the early traffic was just starting to pick up, but up here, where the treetops tickled the side of the building, there was nothing but the footfall of a cat, to disrupt the lovely, satin silence…
I once saw a film of an old fisherman… was he in Africa or maybe Vietnam? The film caught the lean old man as he stepped nimbly onto a slender wooden boat – a deft movement that required no hesitation, that sent him, and his craft gliding forth across the still face of a lagoon, man and boat a single entity that caused, with its passage there, a barely perceptible wake.
My kitchen, devoid now of the omnipresent hum of the refrigerator, felt graciously at peace like that wide, still lagoon,
(and the footfall of a cat)
were the ripples
moving over the surface
of a great depth…
After while I roused myself from this reverie and headed out to the back porch on an errand to retrieve our old cooler that… sure enough, was out there, in dubious company with some cardboard recycling that should have been taken out the Wednesday before. I wiped some stray November leaves off the top of the cooler, brought it inside, and commenced filling it with ice and as many dairy products as I could retrieve from the inert refrigerator. I had my hand on a half spent pint of Half and Half when, to my surprise, I heard the sound of someone clearing their throat.
There, sitting in the chair that I’d recently vacated, was an odd looking bearded man of middle age. He was not in the least pleasant to behold – rather short in stature, balding, and sharp of eye. His clothes were unaccountable – foreign and antiquated, as if he was a wayward Halloween celebrant, or a lost extra from the movie “Spartacus.”
“Are you quite done making that racket?” the man asked, impatiently.
I gurgled something indistinct, and in response the man just gestured for me to take a seat.
“One of the blessings of time travel,” he said, “is that the disturbance temporarily takes out this power of yours… what do you call it?”
“Yes… that. Can’t get used to it. It leaves a kind of layer of impurity over everything.”
“It can be pretty handy, “ I ventured.
“No doubt,” he said. “Keeping food around, so you don’t have to eat it. Keeping light on all night so you don’t have to sleep. Sounds delightful. Back in my day, though, we didn’t have it, and we somehow managed.”
“Back in your day? You don’t look that old. And, do you mind telling me what you are doing here?”
“Didn’t you order a tent?”
He chuckled. “Just a little joke.” “I quit making tents. Now I’m on my fourth missionary journey…”
“Tent maker? Missionary journey?”
“Yes,” he said, “you figured it out… good for you…”
“Paul, called to be an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God…”
“The very same.”
“And to what do I owe this great honor?” I asked, sitting slowly in the chair at the end of the table.
“It’s not much of an honor, really,” he said – “at least, it’s not because you are special or anything. Everyone gets a visit.”
“Every child of God. Are you a child of God?”
“I think so,”
“I think so too,” he said.
“Well,” I said, “since you’ve come for a visit, can I ask you some questions?”
“If you must…” he said, scowling a little.
“Are you ready to retract your regrettable statements about women and slaves?”
“That’s your job,” he said.
“There are some,” I said, “who argue that refuting anything you said is, by definition, a sacrilegious act.”
“Why? Aren’t I a person, just like everyone else? I never claimed to be anything else. If you can argue with your mother, you can argue with me, right?”
“But your truths are considered timeless – they are in the Bible so they are thought to be inspired by God.”
“We all have moments that are inspired by God. Sometimes we get it right. Sometimes we don’t. I’m no different.”
“So how are we supposed to gather wisdom from the Bible – if it’s weakened by the same human frailties as any other book?”
“It is a story. The Bible tells stories, and stories are as strong or as weak as the people in them. I fumbled around, looking for God, and wrote letters encouraging people. When you read my letters, your imagination roams beside me – finding its own way. Each generation must make its own sense of the story. That is the process of gathering wisdom.”
“Are you part of my imagination?”
“Yes I am.”
“So I am allowed to imagine you? The things that you might say?”
“What else would you do?”
“Well, I suppose I could follow you blindly.”
“Why would you do that? Jesus healed the blind.”
“So you are saying that it’s up to me? I can choose what I want to hear and what I choose to ignore. I can choose to disregard your rules about women and slaves?”
“If the moral imperatives of your generation require you to do that, you should do that. It’s best if you do. Can’t you push back against a story? Push back against it, until it tells you the truth. The truth you need.”
“I don’t believe that you are Paul at all,” I said. “You sound more like me than you.”
“Yes,” he nodded “you’re right about that, and that is a problem. Pretty soon the Bible just becomes a place where people go to support their own ideas, and it becomes – how do you say – a chamber of echoes. This, I suppose, is the temptation and the danger that we all bring to the Bible – that when we use it to prop up our own authority, it becomes a fiction – a story told for your own purposes, rather than for what is most important…”
“What is most important?”
“That’s what we’re all trying to figure out. That’s what we do alone in the darkness, and what we do when we are gathered together in community. We are all stumbling about, and occasionally – occasionally we have moments of blessed clarity.”
We were silent for a moment, and my visitor seemed to fade a little bit. I fancied I could see through him to the John Coltrane poster on the wall.
“Coltrane,” he said, following my look – “A Love Supreme.”
I was going to say something, but Paul shushed me.
“Hush,” he said. “Do you hear that?”
I strained to hear anything, but there was not a sound…
“I don’t hear anything,” I said.
“Exactly…” he said, and fading more quickly from sight he said:
“…Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit that is from God, so that we may understand the gifts bestowed on us by God.
And we speak of these things in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual things to those who are spiritual.
With a smile, he was gone
and the velvety silence returned.
How to live by the mystery – by the spirit, when our whole lives are overlaid by the hum of distraction?
There is a spirit that is beneath everything – a spirit that is not of this world.
We need, I thought, to cultivate the art of silence, to ever have a prayer of discerning that mystery…
to become part of the boat –
The refrigerator clicked back to life, filling its room with the hum of the modern world.