“Leaving Jesus Alone” by Mark W. Harris
December 14, 2014 – First Parish of Watertown
Call to Worship – “Now is the Moment of Magic” by Victoria Safford
Now is the moment of magic,
when the whole, round earth turns again toward the sun,
and here’s a blessing:
the days will be longer and brighter now,
even before the winter settles in to chill us.
Now is the moment of magic,
when people beaten down and broken,
with nothing left but misery and candles and their own clear voices,
kindle tiny lights and whisper secret music,
and here’s a blessing:
the dark universe is suddenly illuminated by the lights of the menorah,
suddenly ablaze with the lights of the kinara,
and the whole world is glad and loud with winter singing.
Now is the moment of magic,
when an eastern star beckons the ignorant toward an unknown goal,
and here’s a blessing:
they find nothing in the end but an ordinary baby,
born at midnight, born in poverty, and the baby’s cry, like bells ringing,
makes people wonder as they wander through their lives,
what human love might really look like,
Now is the moment of magic,
and here’s a blessing:
we already possess all the gifts we need;
we’ve already received our presents:
ears to hear music,
eyes to behold lights,
hands to build true peace on earth
and to hold each other tight in love.
“I Feel Sorry for Jesus” by Naomi Shihab Nye
People won’t leave Him alone.
I know He said, wherever two or more
are gathered in my name…
But I bet some days He regrets it.
Cozily they tell you what he wants
and doesn’t want
as if they just got an e-mail.
Remember “Telephone,” that pass-it-on game
where the message changed dramatically
by the time it rounded the circle?
People blame terrible pieties on Jesus.
They want to be his special pet.
Jesus deserves better.
I think He’s been exhausted
for a very long time.
He went into the desert, friends.
He didn’t go into the pomp.
He didn’t go into
the golden chandeliers
and say, the truth tastes better here.
See? I’m talking like I know.
It’s dangerous talking for Jesus.
You get carried away almost immediately.
I stood in the spot where He was born.
I closed my eyes where He died and didn’t die.
Every twist of the Via Dolorosa
was written on my skin.
And that makes me feel like being silent
for Him, you know? A secret pouch
of listening. You won’t hear me
mention this again.
Second Reading – from The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd
I don’t like people. Oh . . . maybe that is an indiscreet thing to say considering the audience. Perhaps I should say I like individual people, but it is large groups that I don’t like. Oh, but you’re a large group. Well, maybe I shouldn’t say anything at all. But the problem is that you probably assume I like large groups of people simply because I am here talking to you in a very public way. You may have even seen me try to sing a capella, or wear a silly Baker’s hat at the Thanksgiving service, or even saw me play the role of a turnip a few years back. It seemed very loud and extroverted and public. You say, oh he must be an extrovert. But, I am not. A few years back I wrote a newsletter column about my attempt to attend a Christmas party at Andover Newton Theological School. I described all the ways I delayed my arrival at the party (going late, checking my mail box and so forth), and then once I arrived I looked in the door, but then found I knew no one by name, and no one was wearing name tags. Can you imagine going up to a complete stranger and introducing yourself? Nothing is more painful for me. That party went on without me. I left. It was one of the more liberating things I have ever done.
I become overwhelmed by large groups of people. If I walk into a Target store, especially this time of year, I want to scream. There are a million people there pushing and shoving; lining up and buying everything in sight. It is an intense experience. It is a lot of work for me.. Our culture is very extroverted at Christmas time. There is music playing everywhere and parties, and large groups of people. While some people draw energy from this cacophony of sounds and sights, I become drained. And that is true of others in this congregation, and this world. We are introverts. In fact, I believe Karen Allendoerfer spoke on this subject last summer. While you may believe I am extroverted because of my loud voice, and my job, you have to remember that a sermon is scripted. Large parties are not. I like visiting people in their homes or talking one on one, or small committee meetings. Some people actually like social hour. They draw energy from a party. I endure them. I have to work at working a room.
We live in a society where the assumption is made that being an extrovert is better. We are often convinced we want an type A personality for a leader, who is a cheerleader who rouses everyone to action, and those who lead quietly behind the scenes or in small groups, or God forbid, want to be left alone to concentrate on doing their work, are not as desirable. I saw this pattern with some people’s reaction to Tracy when they first met her. (Since Tracy is not here today, I can talk about her.) “She is kind of quiet,” they said. “We won’t notice her or be inspired by her.” There was an assumption that she would blend into the woodwork. Now you know her, and see that she is a fabulous organizer and leader, who listens well and gets things done, and preaches well to boot. Like most introverts, we are surrounded by extroverts who don’t understand anything, but the extrovert way. Their idea of down time is relaxing in a big party. My idea of down time is having everyone go away. But we feel we can’t even say we need alone time. What happens when your partner says, I need to be left alone for a while? That’s when all the projections start. We may think she or he is angry at me. What did I do? She does not want me anymore. She’s rejecting me, and telling me to go away. I must have done something wrong, and she refuses to talk about it. Sometimes we forget to listen to our friend or partner’s need to be alone. Perhaps he or she is an introvert, and needs to recharge.
I have come to believe that Jesus was an introvert. Yet if I truly listened to today’s poem, I wouldn’t make any projection about him. That’s the problem we all want to make him into exactly what we want. Even the Unitarians don’t want to mess around with any of that magical healer stuff. We are a little afraid of what goes beyond our rational minds. For instance, we read those Gospels and we pick up on the public part of his ministry. He liked to go to parties and turn water into wine. The next thing you know they called him a wine bibber. This develops like the telephone game, Nye describes. You’ve played that game before. One person hears a story, and passes it on to the next, and each person changes the story. Suddenly a small fender bender accident becomes a major crash. We all put our own spin on the telephone game. This happened to me with my use of the word “retirement” recently. I was at dinner the other night with someone, and they mentioned how they heard I was retiring this year. Because I had said the word in public settings and talked about some possible plans, they had gotten the idea that it was happening soon, like now! The lesson for me was that if I was going to say something, I should be very specific about details and timing because the telephone game will be played with any rumor, and who knows where the story will go, or what the details will be. Look for those retirement details in the January newsletter.
So we have made Jesus into exactly who we want him to be. There are those who want the political radical. You know he was the rabble rouser, and zealot who was furious at how his people had been oppressed by the imperialistic Romans and the Pharisees. He screams vindictive words and turns over the money changers tables. He is an advocate and liberator for the poor and oppressed. Or maybe it is Jesus the hippie with the long hair and beard, who wanders around, homeless, begging from his friends, with no visible means of income. He is a public story teller who is always inviting people to come along with him. He is a magical healer, bringing much attention to himself by raising the dead, healing the sick, rescuing the accused. Now we have those people who want to marry him off, make him a dad, seeming to want him to be a normal guy by their standards. Sometimes I think he must have said, “Leave me alone.”Even in this story of his birth that we like to retell this time of year, we have angels heralding the event, and lots of shouting of hosannas, and glory to God! Lots of extroverted noise.
We may not think of Jesus as a quiet, introverted guy. But how do you think he became such a deeply spiritual person? It is not merely being a charismatic leader who can talk up a storm and charm the ladies. There is the need for time to look deep within yourself. There is the willingness to be open to another reality. There is a calm perception that the world is not meant to be consumed or conquered, but rather it is meant to be perceived in such a way that a sacred reality comes through in every person, place, object and being. This makes me think that Jesus was balanced between introvert and extrovert, what psychologists call an ambivert, who know that it is best to draw on the qualities of both and sometimes be the life of the party and other times draw renewed energy from solitude. In Jesus’ story we know he suggests that rather than praying in public we are better served by going into our room and shutting the door. The temptations of the devil to absorb all the powers and principalities of earth are present, and Jesus goes off into the wilderness for 40 days in order to find the inner strength to do what he needs to do to further his calling to resist evil. Although it is not really a funny story, one has to marvel at Jesus reaction to the disciples when they get caught in a big storm out at sea, and they panic over impending disaster. Does Jesus stand up and man the tiller, or calm the sea with magical words? No, he takes a nap. When he was in Gethsemene near the end of his life, did he call for a strategy session with the disciples? No, he says, “stay here, I’m going on alone.” He had to withdraw to figure out what he wanted to do. As Nye says, “He went into the desert, friends. He didn’t go into the pomp.” Even when he gets caught in situations where his enemies want to label him and get him to betray himself, he throws the question back on them, and says what do you say? We may think he wants attention, but often, he wants to divert it elsewhere. Each of us needs a rhythm of time alone and time with other people. We all need to rest and recharge. We sometimes say that Unitarian Universalism is a faith that is reflected in how we live our lives in the world, but we can only reach out in love to others, when we have taken time to find that well of love and strength in quietness that enables us to go into the world.
As many of you know the UUA recently sold their headquarters on Beacon Street in Boston, and moved to the South end where they bought a building on Farnsworth Street and redesigned it for modern office space. It is quite nice, and won some awards for green design. If you visit and get a tour of the building you will immediately notice one overriding floor plan that seems to reflect current thinking about how offices need to be designed to produce maximum efficiency and collaboration among employees. It is a radically open floor plan with no private offices or doors. This seems to reflect where experts believe the most creativity and intellectual achievement stems from. This perspective says that teamwork is ultimately important for institutional or corporate success. This means the group alone will achieve greatness and that no one person is as smart as all of us. I am suspicious of this having worked at the UUA many years ago, when I found that much of the time I could have spent doing my job of researching for congregations, I was instead occupied with staff meetings or socializing with other staff in so called collaborative meetings. While open space may allow more interactions, I found it also led to more distractions. It seems to me it is forcing an extroverted understanding on the workplace, where a more balanced approach might also give employees a chance to reflect quietly, get work done, and have an occasional private conversation. In fact, Susan Cain, in her book, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, says that collaboration can kill creativity, and that excessive stimulation impedes learning. Studies show that people learn better after a walk in the woods than after a stroll through a noisy city street. How can you be productive when you are constantly interrupted?
The problem is that we are all engrained with the idea that we must be performers. If we don’t sell ourselves, or market our wares we will be failures. While we all know there must be times that we have to prove ourselves, what’s wrong with looking for more balanced character traits. Andrea has sometimes told me that I probably interview poorly because I become anxious talking to a group of new people. An interview like that does not bring out some of the better qualities of an introverted person, because it is dependent on easy verbal acuity, and a facility with being able to think on your feet. An introvert may be better prepared to listen rather than speak, to reflect on what to do rather than speak or act precipitously. While they may look like they are not involved, or would rather be left alone, what they are really doing is going deep to reflect on the things, to prepare themselves for a future day when they are called upon to come up with a new way of being together in the world, when they listen to the other, and find a pathway to deeper truths.
Sue Monk Kidd, the author of The Invention of Wings, wrote a series of inspirational writings when she was young. In one called “Silence,” she recalls a childhood memory of being in bed when she was four, and hearing a persistent scratching on her window screen. While she could have been afraid because it was a loud and grating sound, and it was dark, she wasn’t. She kept coming up with increasingly magical explanations for what it was, as she lay there in the darkness. Finally she crept out of bed, and made her way to her parent’s bed. When she crept in, she shook her mother’s shoulder, and said, “Mama, there is an angel scratching against my window.” She waited a few moments. Her mother did not say, “Don’t be silly that violates any rational explanation of our world.” Nor did she say, that scratching on your window is the wind dragging a branch across it.. It’s nothing. Go back to bed.” Instead even though she was sleepy, she realized that the ability to listen to the world as a mythic and sacred place, to listen to the humdrum and familiar and hear the sacred possibility of music inside it, is a fragile thing, that is easily lost. So rather than denying, or destroying Kidd’s first attempt to listen to the holy possibilities of life, her mother blessed this possibility. “An angel?” She said. “Wonderful. Say hello for me.”
Here Kidd was rewarded as a four year old, not with the blighting of her spirit by a world that is too much with us, but with its own awakening in quiet reflection to spiritual possibility, and then with the nurture of a continuing awakening by someone who loved her. I am reminded of al those sounds I listened to as a child as I lay in bed – summer time cicadas rhythmically serenading me to sleep, as I heard deeper sweeps of rushing wind or dancing trees like streams of the soul, to Christmas time yearnings for a sound of a sleigh on the roof, and then to awaken to a dream of what looked like a shadow of a sliding form on a crystal bed of snow. This season gives us a few moments when we can dwell in magical explanations when we shrink back from an extroverted world where people spill vengeance, and fear and rage upon the world from too much time together, when we have not regained an inner solitude of peace and wonder. Think when a loved one says leave me alone, and we react with fear that they don’t want us around, when perhaps it is only a cry for renewal. May we listen to each other so that the noise of fear can collapse, so that we can dwell with the inner music that longs to regain its center so that our partnership is not a quarrel, but a relational opportunity to love again. Christmas time invites us to listen once again to those magical abilities we all possess to attune our lives to a deeper silence, to return to a time when we imagined mythic understandings of life, and in that listening we could shorten the distances between us, if only for a few moments. May the smell of those childhood breathing meadows that we heard outside our windows return once more, and remind us in this season of solstice that we are all children of earth, all inheritors of the gift of life.
And so may this season bring you some alone time, some time to rest in some needed moments of noiseless calm where you may find strength to restore your soul. Kidd’s novel The Invention of Wings begins with the slave girl Handful and her mother’s stories. She told Handful that her people used to have wings in the old country and they could soar like blackbirds. That magic was stolen when Handful’s grandmother was captured by a slave trader and sent to the Americas. But someday, she promised, they would get their wings back. This is a book about restoring freedom – free body for a slave, free mind for Sarah Grimke, free souls for all of us – freeing us to once again hear the music of divinity in uncommon places – when we only hear shouts of noise. What would give us wings again? Sarah gives Handful some freedom when she teaches her to read. That ends when she is caught drawing letters in the sand, and her master knows the truth. There is a story about Jesus drawing a line in the sand. He indicates he will not follow this law that threatens this woman accused of adultery. I will not be embarrassed he shows, by answering before a crowd. I will not say there is an “us” and a “them.” Who is sinless among us? Here I make my stand. He did it silently with his line in the sand. We must be intentional about where we draw our lines. When will we stop to balance the noise in our lives with a deeper music that gives us the strength to seek freedom. We will never understand that which we have not been intentional about making room for. This season invites us to make room for quiet gifts of the spirit.
Closing Words – “The Angels of Our Better Nature” by Vivian Pomeroy
The Christmas spirit is the song of what Lincoln called “the angels of our better nature.” It is music from the undaunted heart of the world. And somehow at Christmas time we all come home for a little while to what we most really are, which is what we shall be. And suddenly round the corner we come to the unspoiled surprise – to the loveliness and hope and innocent [bliss] which we so often feared we would never see again.