To hear this sermon as preached, press play below.
Delivered to the United Church of Jaffrey
September 2nd, 2018
Whitman in the Car
I’ve been listening to Walt Whitman in the car.
I’ve decided to teach Leaves of Grass this semester, so I’ve been reading it, and listening to it…
and I will say this…
There’s something about Whitman!
He sets out to write a poem that contains the whole universe, and…
As impossible a task as that is — he seems to pull it off!
You’ll be driving along, going here and there — maybe going over to the Tractor Supply to get cat food — and suddenly you realize that, for the last five minutes, Whitman has just been listing things — beautiful, muscular, profound, lively things:
The pure contralto sings in the organ loft,
The carpenter dresses his plank, the tongue of his foreplane whistles its wild ascending lisp,
The married and unmarried children ride home to their Thanksgiving dinner,
The pilot seizes the king-pin, he heaves down with a strong arm,
The mate stands braced in the whale-boat, lance and harpoon are ready,
The duck-shooter walks by silent and cautious stretches,
The deacons are ordain’d with cross’d hands at the altar,
The spinning-girl retreats and advances to the hum of the big wheel,
And each of these things — found, in this way, in the wild stream of the poem — seems to take on a wonderful, essential significance.
I like that.
I’d like to try it too
I would like to take a single moment in human life, and suggest that, in that single moment, something essential exists.
Something utterly human,
Something that speaks perfectly of who we are…
and what is good.
And so I offer you this image — and build my sermon from the ripples it makes.
The image of a new mother in a quiet room, cradling her child, looking into its new eyes.
Human infants are born with enormous heads.
We cannot even hold them up by ourselves!
This biological reality leads to a single and remarkable truth about our species.
We come into the world vulnerable…
Unless another person shows up right away, to help support that insanely large noggin, the child will surely perish.
Hence, we can say that interaction between people is not optional.
…We can’t take it or leave it.
It is necessary.
Our very survival depends upon the caring touch of another person.
In most cases, that person, of course, is the child’s mother — the very person who has, herself, just been through a long wrestling match with immense pain and, in some cases death, to bring the child into the world.
It begins, like this, at the mother’s breast.
Every mother, who has raised the head of infant child to her breast, is aware of this remarkable and amazing fact…
that the life of this helpless child, is literally, in her hands.
I say that it is a fact — and so it is — but as she cradles her child in her arms, I do not think the mother, understands it as a hard fact.
There is nothing hard here. This is a soft place…
This touch — this care — this love — is soft.
And this softness is at the very essence of what it means to be human.
It is a sacred trust.
The mother knows it.
And the child, receiving mom’s tender attentions, is brought forth, whole and healthy, into the world.
This reminds me of Simeon.
Sweet old Simeon was an old man, who, Luke tells us was righteous and devout. He lived in Jerusalem, and was often to be found at the temple there. The Holy Spirit had been with Simeon, and had told him that he would see the Messiah before he died.
So when Mary and Joseph brought the infant Jesus to the temple to be blessed, Simeon was there too.
The old man reached out and took the child in his arms.
He cradled Jesus.
In wonder, he said:
“Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace,
according to your word;
for my eyes have seen your salvation,
which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples,
a light for revelation to the Gentiles
and for glory to your people Israel.”
The Holy Spirit leads the old man, to the infant. The old man cradles the infant — and his life is complete.
Looking into the eyes of the child he cradles in his arms, he says:
my eyes have seen your salvation…
Simeon is at the crossroads of history…
He is at the holy moment, recognizing, in his arms, the miracle of divine incarnation.
And this takes place in the most humble, and most essential of human moments…
The moment of cradling a child.
A vulnerable child,
It is a moment of parental intimacy…
And the child, receiving Simeon’s tender attentions, is brought forth, whole and healthy, into the world.
For this is what God has given us —
We are brought into the world the beneficiaries of a sacred trust…
As infants, we give our parents our need, and they respond, discovering that great love — the love of a parent
And when we become parents, we, in our turn, learn about this sacred trust …
As children, our gift came from vulnerability… and now, as parents, our joy comes from
Opening our hearts to Love.
There is nothing hard here — this is a soft place.
We put pillows in the crib
Buy the right kind of backwards facing car seat.
In our arms we carefully cradle that enormous head.
And so it begins… a life focused on providing…
Providing the needs:
Our children are our spiritual practice.
The humility we learn, as we serve these little ones who reign over us like royalty — the humility brings us, like old Simeon, ever closer to God.
To what is most important.
To what swells in our hearts and gives our lives fullness.
This is the moment — the pure moment that endows the child with an expectation that she will be honored,
That he will be safe,
Just as this essential moment — this cradling of a child by its mother — awakens love, and helps create a whole, authentic person…
There is also, I learned this week, a kind of physical contact that can destroy a person’s entire life.
I watched a video on the internet this week, that interviewed three victims of the clergy abuse scandal.
These three people — two men and a woman — victims of rape and abuse at the hands of Catholic priests — described how their trauma ruined their lives —
They could not trust anyone.
They could not be intimate with anyone.
They lost their desire to have children.
I do not condemn Catholicism. It is important to remember that the vast majority of Catholic priests earnestly do God’s work and are not sexual predators…
But there is something…
Something about the way the way we can encounter simple, paired down truth
That shows us clearly, what evil looks like
And what God looks like.
The bad priests had hard hands. They took life.
We know God. We know the love that gives life — and with soft hands, we too become that love.