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Sankofa III – 1/1/2017

In the language of the Akan people of West Africa there is a word, ‘Sankofa’, which can be translated into English as ‘go back and get it’. It is a small word that evokes a large concept, of reconnecting with the past in order to continue into the future. One of the symbols for sankofa in Akan art is a bird with its feet facing forward and its neck craned to point backwards, sometimes reaching for an egg resting on its own back. It is a reminder that remembering what has gone before is a crucial part of going forward.

We come together every Sunday to do just that: to go back and get what is precious and important in what has gone before, to give us courage and solace in our going forward. But this Sunday, we are going to do it in a particular way. As one year has now ended, and a new one begun, we are going to return together to some of the themes and stories we have shared in our worship over the last twelve months. To remember a bit of what was as we turn towards what might be.

And what a year to look back upon. This may not have been the worst year, objectively speaking, in the history of human record. The economist Max Roser recently pointed out in the Washington Post that Americans have a tradition of deriding the old year as they ring in the new, and that, particularly at the turning point from one year to the next, surveys tend to show a bleak outlook on behalf of the population – and have for decades now. Still, for a great many of us it does feel like 2016 was making a serious, intentional bid to be the most frustrating, heart-breaking, agonizing year of our respective lives. One of the chief factors here was a flurry of high-profile celebrity deaths. A great many talented musicians and actors ended their lives this past year, including Alan Rickman, Gene Wilder, Carrie Fischer, and three iconic performers who were also inspirations for an unknowable number of people in living out with their gender and sexual identities: David Bowie, Prince, and George Micheal. For some of us here in this sanctuary, I happen to know that the last twelve months also held some very personal losses – deaths that don’t make the news, or get turned into grief memes on Facebook, but which cut a thousand times more deeply, because the people you lost were family or friends – folks you truly loved, and always will.

Without really realizing how important a commentary on grief and loss was going to be this year, I touched on this subject back in June, at our annual Flower Communion service. Here’s the flashback:

Hosea Ballou, 19th-century America’s most famous advocate for Universalism, served briefly as minister of the First Universalist Society of Salem, one of the two historic congregations from which our present worshiping community is descended. He was renowned for fashioning intricate and insightful theological metaphors from mundane and familiar objects and experiences. In one of my favorite of his little parables, Ballou compares God to an orange. Here are his words:

“I know it is frequently contended that we ought to love God for what God [he] is, and not for what we receive from God [him]; that we ought to love holiness for holiness’ sake, and not for any advantage such a principle is to us.  This is what I have often been told, but what I never could see any reason for, or propriety in.  I am asked if I love an orange; I answer I never tasted of one; but I am told I must love the orange for what it is!  Now I ask, is it possible for me either to like or dislike the orange, in reality, until I taste it?  Well, I taste of it, and like it.  Do you like it? says my friend.  Yes, I reply, its flavor is exquisitely agreeable.  But that will not do, says my friend; you must not like it because its taste is agreeable, you must like it because it is an orange.  If there be any propriety in what my friend says, it is out of my sight.”

Now, whether or not you call life’s transcendent meaning by the name God, as Hosea did, I submit that the only means we have of experiencing that awesome mystery which he compared to an orange is by living in this world. It is only by being alive, relating to each other and the rest of the universe around us, and paying attention, that we can gain any sense of the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part. We taste the fruit of the world by living in it; but the truth of the matter is, it is not always sweet. It can be like a fresh orange at times; and it can also be as bitter as a mouthful of dirt.

If you’ve ever had a mouthful of dirt – as I have – you know the way that the tongue rejects it, the mouth dries out and flecks of it cling to your gums and the insides of your cheeks no matter how you work to spit it all out again. The taste lingers long after the moment has past, and its flavor deadens the pleasure found in anything else you might try to eat or drink. This is the way that the experience of life is sometimes: harsh, and gross, and seemingly unwilling to let you feel anything else besides pain or grief.

There are many ancient arguments about why this is so, that there is some cosmic need for balance, or that we could not appreciate the good without the experience of the bad, or that it is simply a mystery we are meant to ponder but never solve. I confess I find none of these compelling. There is too much wrong in the world to be excused away by some cheap theological justification. Terrible things happen. Pain and suffering are all-too real. The earth we share ought to be a better place than it is; that is why it is up to us to make it so.

But if we only love the world when it is sweet to us, we will spend most of our days sad, angry, or afraid, and what’s more we will set a terrible precedent. For I know that I yearn to be loved not only when I am perfect, but also in the overwhelming majority of the time when I am profoundly imperfect. We need each other’s hearts to be generous enough to love this life, even after we have seen how heart-breaking it can be. In fact, our continued ability to love despite suffering and loss is the very sweetest thing about the orange. As the farmer-poet Wendell Berry says, “Having come the bitter way to better prayer, we have the sweetness of ripening.” There can be no cosmic reason or justification for the bitterness of life. But by honestly facing it, and lovingly responding to it, we may yet make the world more sweet.

I only quoted one line of Berry’s poem there, but I want to share the whole of it with you this morning:

The longer we are together

the larger death grows around us.

How many we know by now

who are dead! We, who were young,

now count the cost of having been.

And yet as we know the dead

we grow familiar with the world.

We, who were young and loved each other

ignorantly, now come to know

each other in love, married

by what we have done, as much

as by what we intend. Our hair

turns white with our ripening

as though to fly away in some

coming wind, bearing the seed

of what we know. It was bitter to learn

that we come to death as we come

to love, bitter to face

the just and solving welcome

that death prepares. But that is bitter

only to the ignorant, who pray

it will not happen. Having come

the bitter way to better prayer, we have

the sweetness of ripening. How sweet

to know you by the signs of this world!

Months later, we were exploring what it means to be called – both literally, and spiritually, and I shared a review of the calling stories of the foundational prophets of the three great branches of the Abrahamic traditions:

Each of the great prophets has some first transcendent moment, signifying the beginning of their intimate relationship with the Divine, and the start of their particular work trying to reorder the world according to what is right and just. Moses, you probably remember, has his encounter with the burning bush, wreathed in flame but never consumed by it. The voice from the bush gives Moses his mission – to liberate his people from slavery – but its first instruction is much more immediate. Moses is told by the bush to take off his sandals, for he is standing on holy ground. Even the beginning has a beginning, the preparation that comes before he even takes on the mantle of prophecy.

It’s a little less iconic these days, but the teacher Jesus has a moment like this as well. In the Gospels According to Matthew, Mark, and Luke, the story is told that Jesus went to the Jordan river, to be anointed with water by John the Baptist, a prophet who lived in the wilderness and called on the people of the cities and villages to repent from their unjust ways. At the moment of his baptism, the three stories describe a dove descending from the sky, and a voice from on high announcing its pleasure with Jesus. The Christian Bible doesn’t really present any direct account of Jesus’ internal life, nor does it offer stories in which he argues with God – something of a major theme for other leading biblical figures like Abraham and Moses. This is what allows for the common orthodox interpretation of Jesus – incapable of being surprised or uncertain, because he is a being who exists beyond time. But I find the more human interpretation of the teacher far more compelling, in which he would be shocked by the sudden appearance of the dove and the voice, right along with John and the other spectators, just as awe-struck and disoriented as Moses had been by the burning bush.

In the story of Muhammad’s call as a prophet, he was alone, just like Moses. He had gone up into a cave in the mountainside above his city in order to pray and reflect. And then, the story goes that the angel Jabreel – Gabriel – appeared to him and showed him a few lines of text written in the sky out of flame. “Read” Jabreel commanded. Muhammad wanted to comply, but he literally could not; like most people in his place and time, he was illiterate. The angel shook him and commanded him again and again, Jabreel could not make Muhammad read what he could not read. So eventually, instead, the angel spoke words and Muhammad recited dutifully the first lines of the message entrusted to him: “Bismilllah al-Rahman, al-Rahim…”

Muhammad’s story includes an element that those of Moses and Jesus and most of the other big names leave out: the immediate aftermath of a prophet’s call. Muhammad comes down from the mountain shaken and disturbed by what he has experienced. It was profound, but also frightening, and when he sees his wife, Khadija, he tells her all that has happened and confesses his fear to her. He cannot imagine why a relatively unimportant man, such as him, should be chosen by God for a prophet and so he worries that his senses are false, or that some evil force is trying to deceive him. Khadija, however, listens to her husband’s story and believes him, and she offers reassurance, reminding him that he is a good and respected neighbor who deals justly in business and upholds his responsibilities to family. He seems a very wise choice for a prophet to her. It is for this reason that Khadija is credited as the first Muslim; she fully believed in and embraced the revelation that came to Muhammad, even before he did.

Even out of the darkness – or, perhaps, especially out of the dark – the voice of something unknown and unknowable calls to us. Amidst anguish and doubt and despair, in a moment, or in a year, there emerges some movement we are called to make or to join. Not because we know exactly where it will lead us, or because we are certain of success, but because it is what the time demands of us, and we feel no alternative but to answer it.

Now, it may be that the results of this year’s Presidential election did not catch you off-guard at all. But I have already confessed to you that they did so for me. And on the Sunday after that Tuesday, we reflected together on what this new administration in Washington and the new era in our political and social life as a nation that it seemed to hale was going to mean for us as a spiritual community. Here is just a little of what I said to you, then:

I cannot yet call what lies ahead for us good, but it is profound. We are going to need to speak out every time the rights of one of us or one of our neighbors in infringed. We are going to have to offer sanctuary to anyone and everyone who needs it. We are going to be called upon to answer every hateful word or deed stridently, with a love that knows there are some things love cannot abide.

We Unitarian Universalists have long been concerned less with the mysteries beyond death than with the way humans create paradise or perdition here on earth. It’s been a hell of a week [I might add here, for some of us, a hell of a year]. So, sprinkled with tears as necessary, let’s get back out into the world, and help to heal it.

On the doorstep of a new year, we are like the hosts of a dinner party where both the old year and the new are guests. It would not be right to treat one with respect, and ignore the other. Both require our attention. Today is the soil in which the seed of our heart is planted. So too is tomorrow, and the day after that, and the day after that. For each of us, there are, no doubt, things we need to let go of. But let us not lose sight of the past in our speed to reach the future. Rather, let the year to come set its roots into what has gone before.

 

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