Over the summer we had a chance to take our granddaughter out for lunch. The little place we chose has a long history of children and summer, of burgers and ice cream. It sits nestled into a long, lovely valley, an actively agricultural valley of corn fields and dairy barns. We were not quite alone in the small dining room, though that designation itself seems overwrought. The room simply provided space for a collection of tables and chairs. An older woman sat, back to door, enjoying her luncheon hot dog and potatoes. After lunch, as a reward for eating all of lunch, our granddaughter had an ice cream cone. I want to try to interrupt all the twittering texting emailing rushing half listening cacophony of our current life with the dripping joy of one three year old and one small vanilla cone. Our older friend peered over her hot dog and potatoes and with eyes bright pronounced a silent blessing. Everything about an ice cream cone in the summer brims with what is good. The cold clean taste. The texture soft and grainy. The drip drip of melted cream falling on lips, then chin, then tiny hand, then shirt, then floor. The dive nose first down in for more. Sheer happy joy, for the moment, attends such a child on such a day with such a treat. A simple peace.
In that hour, she, holding the ice cream cone, was the guest, and we, bursting with a simple peace, were the hosts. Jesus meets us today within the pageant of religious teaching about guests and hosts. Our passage is a loner in the gospels, simply and beautifully so. Luke alone possesses this material, and bestows it all upon us by a garden tool means. He simply links up stories that have to do with meals, or feasts. My friend said he preached ‘clothes-line’ sermons: “I put out a line and pin up whatever comes to mind”. On his line, Luke pins up wisdom for hosts and guests: wisdom though that has an eternal reward. The guest is reminded and remanded to practice the humility of a simple peace. Sit low, down the table. The host is reminded and remanded to practice the benevolence of a simple peace. Look low, down to the needy. The guest represents the inner journey, our daily hunt for an inner peace. The host represents the outward journey, our lifelong hunt for the reign of peace. One a state of mind. The other a state of affairs. And allowing Augustine’s rule sway today, we shall form the sermon in the form of the scripture. One clothes line crossing the other.
A state of mind can change a state of affairs. We are hoping that is so for those poor Chilean miners, trapped beneath the ground. A state of mind can improve a state of affairs. We are hoping that will be so for those who begin their studies here, in this secular, northern, urban, cold, large University. A state of mind can transform a state of affairs. We are hoping that will be so for those near and far making space, in public place, for houses of worship for all religions. A state of mind can transform a state of affairs. We are hoping that will be so for you, in your private thoughts, in your family negotiations, in your toughest choices. Hold to a simple peace. That of the guest and the inward journey: humility. That of the host and the outward journey: generosity.
Some of the old, good things about life well before and well beyond college age can bring their refreshment, a powerful refreshment, into communities of twenty year olds. I notice the way our students respond to children when, occasionally, there are little people on campus. You can see the minds moving: this once was me; one day I will have children. Guest, inward journey. Host, outward journey. An education frees you from the confines of the early twenty first century by immersing you in Plato and Shakespeare and Galileo and the Russian Revolution. In the same way, just a glimpse of the child and cone free you from the confines of life at twenty.
(H). The simple peace of humility in religious discourse. No one religious tradition corners the market of a simple peace. Like the Buddha, we need to come down from heaven, down from our very worthy, but limiting intelligences. Like the Buddha, we need to celebrate any birth, with Siddhartha’s birth. Like the Buddha we need to explore the world outside the palace, to explore other spaces and times. Like the Buddha we need to find our own forms of Siddhartha’s famous renunciation. Like the Buddha we can benefit from the simplicity enjoined in any and every ascetic practice. Like the Buddha, we face the challenge of Mara’s temptations, of life’s temptations. Like the Buddha, who preached his first sermon, we find our true voice by finding our earlier voice. Like the Buddha, we seek peace, a kind of nirvana. Such a simple peace allows us to move, to grow, to change. “What’s won is done, the joy is in the doing”, wrote Shakespeare. That is the spirit of the cadets who graduated to the motto ‘live free, serve free, die free’, even as their teachers honored their tactical intuition and acknowledged their youth (‘we expect Second Lieutenants to make mistakes’). Here is the experience, rendered with peaceful simplicity, of a Palestinian poet:
(G.) The simple peace of generosity in Matriculation. One good way to start the year, in a simple peace, is by giving something to others. I remember volunteering to lead a scout troop during my freshman year. We camped in the rain. I remember others who visited nursing homes. They listened when they could not understand. You will find something healing and revelatory if you sign on as a big brother or sister. Sometimes, like children, in simplicity, we need to re-enter the kingdom of God. Even in the freshman year.
(H). The simple peace of humility in devotion. A simple peace can be a Sunday gift. A church service like this one reminds you of such a simple peace. You are a child of God. Howard Thurman famously concluded his masterpiece, Jesus and the Disinherited, with just this thought. To allow such kingdom sensibility to live, though, requires all the heavy thought and truth telling we can muster. J Mang: ‘it is likely that nothing will match the reassurance of a Sunday morning spent in church. But for an ever growing number of Americans, the conviction that the church is built on shaky philosophical grounds is more powerful than
the longing for unconditional comfort’. The two cannot finally be disjoined. The gospel of truth, to be gospel and truth must be both gospel and truth. Nor can the religious longing ever easily be written out of human life: ‘whatever introduces genuine perspective is religious’ (Dewey). We face mystery. We realize that more than understanding, more than knowledge, is demanded by life. To understand is good. To overcome is great. One journalist remarked on the survivors of a tragedy fifty years ago; “They have been called upon to face up to mystery, actually the most terrible mystery of all, and facing mystery is something that everyone must do for himself. In the face of such a disaster one must fall back on faith or find only bitter meaninglessness in the universe. To my mind this is the greatest challenge faith offers—to believe that the hand of God has not been withdrawn from the world when such things happen’. Said of those who lost children in the 1958 Chicago fire, this could be said of us all. One frame for such a perspective is that of Paul Tillich: ‘God does not exist. He is being-itself beyond essence and existence. Therefore to argue that God exists is to deny him’ (ST 1, 205). Strangely, the most truly academic discourse is the one set against a horizon that outstretches academia. The only truly academic dean is the dean of the chapel(!).
(G). The simple peace of generosity in correction. A simple peace can be prophetic. Jeremiah warned his people: you have left aside the springs of water of inner peace; you have built for yourselves broken cisterns which will hold no outward generosity. A woman at Riverside Church saw ahead around the corner: ‘My concern is that (our new pastor) in his writings, has taken an Afrocentrist view that is not necessarily consistent with the universal, embracing tradition of our church’ (C Guice-Mills, NYT 9/08). Yet that same simple peace can be redemptive. The great recession of these two years has reminded us of what children know best. M Atwood: ‘Children begin saying ‘That’s not fair’ long before they start figuring out money…Debt, who owes what to whom, or to what, and how that debt gets paid, is a subject much larger than money. It has to do with our basic sense of fairness, a sense that is embedded in all our exchanges with our fellow human beings’. (NYT 10/08). Sometimes the simple voice of conscience will rise up and touch us: ‘I felt like I was betraying myself, like this isn’t really what I like to do, this isn’t who I am, this isn’t the experience I want to be having.’
(H). The simple peace of humility in attention. I notice how much detail my granddaughter sees that I miss. The dog in the water. The bird behind the tree branch. The rabbit peeking out from under the berry bush. The sound of the water running into the culvert. Perhaps it is this simplicity of direction observation, dulled over decades that causes us to misstep. So, the inward journey toward a simple peace, self-critical self-awareness, can be lucrative, if honored. In 1988 on GM executive in all simplicity wrote: ‘we have vastly underestimated how deeply ingrained are the organizational and cultural rigidities that hamper our ability to execute’. I could have said, most nearly did say, the same about the UM church in 1988. We too developed structures that repelled top talent. We too evaded a relentless quality focus. A simple peace can be beautiful. Real beauty is simple, as simplicity itself is beautiful. Proust wrote, ‘Beauty. That beauty of which we are sometimes tempted to ask ourselves whether it is, in this world, anything more than the complementary part that is added to a fragmentary and fugitive stranger by our imagination over stimulated by regret’. At the Kennedy museum, you can watch and hear President Kennedy say, ‘we shall not fear beauty’. A good word, in simple peace, for our time too.
(G). The simple peace of generosity in healing. The outward journey toward a simple peace, benevolence in behavior, can be healing. Medical care could benefit from a focus on simplicity, a childlike attention to the simple things. Medicare no longer reimburses hospitals for ten conditions, simply preventable, when developed by patients in their care. In 2007, 193,000 people suffered falls, 30,000 were infected during catheterizations, 15,000 lost blood sugar control, 12,000 suffered urinary tract infection. Pay attention, stay clean: ‘tis a gift to be simple’. The same is true at the intersection—here—of scholarship and religion. We all need to ‘foster public virtue through moral instruction and official ritual without coercing dissenters. The 21st century has begun with seemingly unbridgeable chasms between secularism and believers. One step in averting such a parlous situation is to recover the notion of an Enlightenment spectrum that, by including the religious Enlightenment, complicates our understanding of belief’s critical and abiding role in modern culture’. (D Sorokin)
Would you not love to master the simple art of care, the ‘quiet habit of efficacious compassion’?
Everyone who humbles himself will be exalted, and everyone who exalts himself will be humble.
The last shall be first, and the first shall be last.
We will close with EB White, though it is a story from the season of shiver, not that of thirst, of winter not of summer. (A gentle reminder of life 180 days from now?)
One of my favorite Boston vignettes is set in the public Garden. EB White liked to take his step-son skating on the Frog Pond, when they visited relatives in Beacon Hill. Both step Father and Son loved Boston, and its charming garden. One day they hiked down from their relatives apartment, took off their shoes, stuffed them under a bench, donned their skates and skated until the sun set. This was in the depths of the depression. When they returned to the bench, their shoes were gone. ‘Someone needed them more than we did’ was all White would say. Then the two hiked up Beacon Hill together. Still in their skates. That image of the great writer, enjoying the winter, loving the garden, enthralled with ice, kind to the needy, and hiking up Beacon Hill on the tips of his skates—that image stays with me.
Dean of Marsh Chapel