The Secret is in the Dirt

Mark 4: 26-34

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Preface

The New Yorker cartoon images sometimes return to the mind, in recollection or memory or both, from decades past. I wonder whether another generation, clickified so, will retain the delight, or whether theirs will be other delights? Those etchings, those whimsical, often wise inspections of cotidian strangeness have been over time a friendly companion. Religion and life are not separate from one another. Religion is life, and life is religion. You spell that L.I.F.E. I do not want a religion separated from life, nor a religion which provides an escape or a hiding place, nor do you.

This particular cartoon shows a church, just as the service begins. In the pulpit stands the minister dressed in a black suit and collar. Over his right shoulder hangs a golf bag. One can make out three woods, several irons, a putter, a towel, a ball retriever. Three rows back one man leans to another and says, ‘I could be wrong, but something tells me that today’ s sermon may a short one’.

We are at the edge of summer. This summer we welcome an exciting array of guests, who will preach the gospel of truth and hope as they consider the influence, at his bicentennial, of Charles Darwin. They bring a hopeful and helpful word, and will set to work in the work before them. Let me spill the beans, and let the cat out of the bag. We intend these ten sermons as an evangelistic rally, of sorts. That is, we intend to offer sermons that connect to and with people whose primary language, mother tongue, is scientific, whose work involves microscopes, stethescopes, and lab coats, who on the great divide long ago measured by C P Snow, in the Two Cultures, are most immersed in the ranges of truth known in the physical, natural and biological sciences. Certainly, the broader population—internet, radio, live—we have in mind. But too infrequently in our time, there have been offered examples of preaching the gospel of truth that fully acknowledges scientific truth. Marsh Chapel makes this gift to the country and beyond this summer.

Today, in Mark 4, we focus on the practice, the rigorous practice, of faith. We do not ever focus enough on the actual practice of faith, faith after all known in its practice, particularly on planting and fishing, on tithing and evangelism.

Ben Hogan, perhaps the last century’s best golfer, died some years ago. So often we do not appreciate a person until she\he is absent, or dies. Tragic, this. Hogan rose from poverty, survived an unsurvivable automobile accident, overcame a slight build and reached all of his golfing potential, plus 10%. Most shocking to the average mortal golfer is the bitter fact that Hogan, for years, struggled to tame a fierce slice. (A slice is when you hit the ball 300 yards, 150 forward and 150 due east). At last he conquered this besetting sin, this slice, and went on to glory. Of course, everyone wanted to know how he did it. “It’s a secret” is all he would say. His obituary, however, reported that a couple of years before he died, Hogan revealed what he by revelation, by apocalypse, had learned: “The secret…is in the dirt”, he concluded.

Now there is a gnomic, epigrammatic, mystagogical wisdom saying, if ever there was one. “The secret is in the dirt”. Hogan meant: the secret is in the constant, lifelong swinging of the club into the dirt, morning and evening, in season and out, victory and loss. “The secret is in the dirt”.

How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Practice, practice, practice…

In the d.i.r.t.:

Determination
Intensity
Repetition
Thrill

1. Determination

There comes a time in life when one determines one’s determination.

There comes a time to choose, and then to follow through. You do not have forever to choose, though forever you live with how you choose.

We are impressed, this spring, with the sheer anxiety of the workplace. Women and men, particularly men, are anxious and fretful. Capitalism, the grinding will of man in the market, shows little partiality.

“Believe me, John, I’d love to do otherwise but the numbers are just not there”.

I feel for the women and men, particularly the men, of this age who offer soul and body to work—only to find that the goddess of labor is not always faithful. We have long been leaving people behind in this country. It’s just that the numbers and kinds of people so marooned have changed.

Jesus asks you this: “What can it profit a man to gain the whole world and lose his life? What can a man give in exchange for his life?”

There is more to life than work. There is more to life than work.

Yet, we have managed to develop an anxiety laden country of 90hr weeks, neglect of home, dismissal of community, abandonment of children. We clergy have some responsibility here. We have modeled the spiritual dimensions of commitment, earnestness, and the work ethic. But have we heeded the grandfather who said, “Looking back I wish I had spent more time in reflection, risked more, and focused on my legacy to another generation”?

Here Jesus stands. “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow.” There comes a time when one determines one’s determination.

Enter in at the narrow gate. Broad is the way and wide is the gate that leads to perdition, and many there are who go therein. But narrow is the gate and straight the way that leads to life and few there are who find it.

When shove supplants push, my friend, whose are you? Can you sing something like the old hymn, “Where he leads me I will follow”? The secret is in determination. In this sense, it is really the work of teachers of so many sorts in discipleship, that counts most. I’m speaking to women and men, particularly men. Bonhoeffer wrote:

“Only the obedient believe. If we are to believe we must obey a concrete command. Without this preliminary step of obedience, our faith will only be pious humbug, and lead us to the grace which is not costly. Everything depends on the first step. It has a unique quality of its own. The first step of obedience makes Peter leave his nets, and later get out of the ship; it calls upon the young man to leave his riches. Only this new existence, created through obedience, can make faith possible”.

The secret is in determination.

2. Intensity

Determination hungers for intensity, for the purity of the heart which is to will one thing, a continual bearing down on the very core of your life, your vocation, your calling.

It matters greatly, as Bill Muehl wrote, what happens in life.

We lived for a while in a small town along the Mohawk river. One Sunday our Bishop came to preach. He was one intense cleric. My mother planned a fine Sunday dinner for after church. But the Bishop was not planning to stay for lunch. In the end, though, he stayed. We all hurried through the meal. Especially my sister, who backhanded her milk glass all over the Bishop’s black suit, clerical collar and spec
tacles. He even wore, for part of the meal, a slight dollop, a thin thread, a trace of the aforementioned milk on his nose. When I say him later in life, I could still “see” the milk.

Death is a part of life, and not the other way around.

Suffering is a part of experience, and not the other way around.

Love outlasts loss, and not the other way around.

The secret is in intensity. In this sense, it is really pastoral work, the pastoral care of our fellowship offered both by ministers and lay folks, that counts most. Bonhoeffer wrote:

“To be called to a life of extraordinary quality, to live up to it, and yet to be unconscious of it, is indeed a narrow way. To confess and testify to the truth as it is in Jesus, and at the same time to love the enemies of that truth, his enemies and ours, and to love them with the infinite love of Jesus Christ, is indeed a narrow way. To believe the promise of Jesus that his followers shall possess the earth, and at the same time to face our enemies unarmed and defenseless, preferring to suffer injustice rather than to do wrong ourselves, is indeed a narrow way.”

The secret is in intensity.

3. Repetition

Such intensity, to survive, needs repetition in practice. The determined, intense, repetitive practice of faith, as in all things, at last wins out.

Count it all joy, brethren, when various trials beset you…

In community we learn to challenge each other when our strokes are errant. We learn to challenge abusive behavior, intended or unintended. We learn to challenge the use of crude language, which does not become the gospel. We learn to challenge misuses of power, however benevolent. We learn to hold one another accountable to Jesus Christ. We learn…by practicing. We learn…by repeating. In this sense, the work of our small groups are most important. Bonhoeffer wrote:

“If our Christianity has ceased to be serious about discipleship, if we have watered down the gospel into emotional uplift which makes no costly demands and fails to distinguish between natural and Christian existence—then we have (forgotten the cross).

I know that the word religion is suspect, today, and rightly so. So much darkness, so much hurt, so much that maims life is covered by such a word. It takes repetitive resistance to shift, to shove to shift, the balance of influence in that word.

So we resist. We resist the cultural influences that make the tragic slaying at the Holocaust museum a referent for the word religion. We resist the cultural influences that make the tragic killing of Dr Tiller a referent for the word religion. We will resist the Denver leader, quoted in the Globe, who, reflecting on Tiller said, ‘well, you know, when you work for the mafia, you know you are taking risks’ (Our pulpits need to ring out, now. I will give you the phrase. Here it is: women’s bodies are women’s bodies). So we resist, with a swinging repetition.
The secret is in repetition. Backswing, stroke, follow through. Backswing, stroke, follow through…

4. Thrill

In the end, there is a thrilling prospect that awaits us.

Determination produces intensity.
Intensity produces repetition.
Repetition produces a thrill.
Thrill does not disappoint.

Whitehead wrote,

“The death of religion is the repression of a spirit of high adventure.”

The human condition is not a spectator sport.

Are you…

Determined?
Intense?
Repetitive?
Thrilled?

This summer, there may be a high moment.

Summer in the northeast carries a precious liturgical and ritual. In a land of cold, snow, ice, dark, wind, rain and storm, these summer months allow a pause. In this pause we may travel. In this pause we may enjoy the gifts of nature. In this pause we may connect or reconnect with our families. In this pause we may read, stroll, wander, wonder. No wonder the minister carried his clubs into the pulpit.

At dawn, along the lake. Sitting under a water fall. Alone along a trail. Fingers and toes deep in sand. Sunset, purple. Howard Thurman on Daytona Beach.

There may be a high moment, an experience of truly being alive.

~ The Rev. Dr. Robert Allan Hill, Dean

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