Radical Commitment in an Uncertain Time: Roots and Shoots
Today we gather for re-commitment – to each make whatever commitments are right for us to make. Hopefully there is a freedom about that. Hopefully whatever commitment we make, we make it with joy. For all acts of commitment are sacred acts of resistance to a dominant culture that says over and over to us --”Don't get involved. Keep your options open.” Commitment is a radical act.
We come today to join a local expression of the church – the Christian Church. But what does it mean to be a Christian Church today? When most of us grew up, that wasn't a question anyone one was asking. Just go along main street -- why there's the Catholic Church, and on the next corner the Methodist Church and in another block that big Episcopal Church, and one street over, I'm sure there's a First Baptist Church and maybe a second one, too. Most of them have been there for a hundred or more years, though a new educational wing has been added here and there, and I think the Presbyterian Church (did I mention that one?) recently got a Rose Window for its Narthex (I had to look that one up - it's the vestibule where you enter the church).
Today, when you drive along main street, say, Fenton Street in Silver Spring a few blocks from where we used to live, the First Baptist Church is all boarded up and there's a sign that says, “Moved to join a congregation in Takoma Park.” Cheryl and I recently drove past a building that looked like a church in a small town in upstate New York that had a sign saying, “Historical Society!” And how many churches have you seen in our cities that are now community centers?
Some of us are familiar with John Philip Newell – from the talks he has given at Shalem of from his books of Celtic prayers or the book those of us in Earth Ministry have read – A New Harmony: the Spirit, the Earth, and the Human Soul. He is the former warden of Iona Abbey in the Western Isles of Scotland and now a companion theologian at the American Spirituality Center of Casa del Sol at Ghost Ranch in New Mexico. In a new book about Christianity's Struggle for new beginnings he writes:
The walls of Western Christianity are collapsing ...In another 25 years much of the Christian household as we have known it will be no more. One has only to look around on a typical Sunday in most mainstream Christian Churches. Who will be there in 25 years?
Of course, there are exceptions to this, but it is a very big trend.
Newell goes on to ask – What is the new thing that is trying to emerge from deep within us
and from deep within the collective soul of Christianity?
I'll have to say folks, that question is our question. Our question here at Dayspring and ours for the past 67 years in the Church of the Saviour. What is the new thing that is trying to emerge from deep within us and from deep with the collective soul of Christianity? “The old is falling apart, the new is being born.” How often we have heard those words over these 67 years! Uncertainty, fear of loss, and excitement about new possibility travel with us on the journey. Most years, and especially right now, this is the context of our re-commitment.
When I say that such commitment is radical, I'm referring to two dimensions of “radical.” Both it's first, and literal, meaning – root – and its second, more usual, meaning - departing markedly from the usual or customary. Since we are are all about gardening here now at Dayspring, let me just call those two dimensions of radical, “roots” and “new shoots.” A series of sermons might be required to fully explore these roots and shoots of radical commitment, but in this shortened service, I'm just going to mention briefly two roots and two new shoots that seem pertinent for us today.
First root: Silence
After worship today we are having a very different sort of congregational gathering. We are going to spend some time out on the land in silence. Some will go farther out than others, and that's just fine. But we will all be in silence. Silence is one of our roots in this business of radical commitment. Something to hang onto in this time of uncertainty and change.
Second root: Community
As we spend this silent time together on the land, we know that among us we hold great differences about the land –in particular, about what it means to be one with the deer and all of creation – about our sense of “right action” in the stewardship of this land. That brings me to the second “root” I want to mention – community. In our 67 years in the Church of the Saviour we have struggled mightily with what it means to become the Body of Christ as a community, not just a collection of individuals. Gordon spoke to us often about becoming corporate persons. We have been told that even our personal spiritual growth at some point depends on our engagement with the crucible of community. I cannot be fully who I am in Christ without you ...and you ... and you.. I use the words, “crucible of community” – it is a hard, sometimes painful commitment to take on, and the struggle of it is never finished – just as each of us are never finished, always works in progress.
In this struggle in community, we will never become all the same, or of the same mind. We will always be different (thankfully!) and have our differences (though, as the intern commitment suggests, to some extent those differences may be “transcended and transmuted” ). What seems most to matter is how we hold those differences together, in some sort of communion. A communion of differences. It's about how we hold opposites together in a “both/and” way, rather than staying divided in an “either/or” way.
Elizabeth O'Connor in a section on community in Journey Inward, Journey Outward quotes Gordon regarding our commitment --
It says to a specific group of people that I am willing to be with you. I am willing to belong to you. I am willing to be the people of God with you. This is never a tentative commitment that I can withdraw from. It is a commitment to a group of miserable, faltering sinners who make with me a covenant to live in depth until we see in each other the mystery of Christ himself and until in these relationships we come to know ourselves as belonging to the Body of Christ.
Elizabeth goes on to tell us a story from the school in France that Georges Gurdjieff founded – The Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man. It seems that in the school there was a Russian student named Rachmilevitch who was a troublemaker and irritated everyone in the community. He complained a lot and finally left for Paris. This should have been an enormous relief to Gurjieff, but to everyone's amazement Gurdjieff went to great effort to persuade him to return. His explanation was that he needed Rachmilevitch to stir others up. Elizabeth says that “Gurjieff operated on the theory that it was necessary to see oneself without illusion and that friction brought about conflicts in people which shocked them into seeing themselves.” She goes on to say that “the Christian community does not need to import its Rachmilevitches. God gives more than one to each person who comes within the New Covenant.”
So here at Dayspring, who are your, who are my, Rachmilevitches? And how are you, how am I, finding the blessing, finding the gold, in the context of our engagement with them?
I've mentioned two roots of our radical commitment – silence and community. Now onto two new shoots.
I'm calling these new shoots. We might imagine the land right around the Farmhouse – all of a sudden there are little things sprouting up all over. New little shoots, many over here looking the same as those over there. Hmmmm. What's happening?
First new shoot: Coming back into relationship with Creation as a sacred reality
In his new book that I mentioned earlier, John Philip Newell tells this story about the weekly pilgrimages around the island of Iona. When he first arrived at the Abbey on Iona the pilgrimage visited many sacred sites, including especially, the rebuilt Abbey, but did not stop at the ruin of the 13th century nunnery. The Abbey standing with its roof and four strong walls, the Nunnery open, free to the elements. But increasingly since those days, John Philip and many others have felt an attraction to the Nunnery, to pray there in silence, or celebrate simple ritual and dance together. In reflecting on this John Philip writes –
The desire to pray in the Nunnery is the desire to pray again in relationship with the Earth. Directly related to this is the desire to come back into relationship with the feminine as sacred. Our religion, like so much of our Western culture, has suffered a tragic imbalance. The neglect and exploitation of the Earth have gone hand in hand with a subordination and abuse of the feminine... Praying in the Nunnery is part of the growing desire in us to bring back into relationship again so-called opposites that have been torn apart, the masculine and the feminine, as well as the life of humanity and the life of the Earth.
Newell says that the ancient Celts spoke of the cathedral of Earth, Sea, and Sky. So maybe this new shoot of coming back into relationship with Earth, also has a deep root in our Christian tradition. When you look carefully at all the Christian mystics – Julian of Norwich, Hildegard of Bingen, Meister Eckhart, John Duns Scotus, as well as people like Teilhard Des Chardin in more recent times you see how big that root is.
And now new sprouts are popping up from that root all over. When Cheryl and I were at the Weston Priory a couple of weeks ago, the Brothers sang a couple songs at the evensong service that are about coming back into relationship with the Earth – one called Children of Earth, a version of Psalm 8 with the refrain, “Who are we that you keep us in mind, children of Earth that you care for us? We are children of the Earth” And this one – That All May be One, with the refrain, “That all may be one, one with our God and with each other, one with the Earth and all of creation, united together in a bond of love.” What was even more amazing to me was to see that these songs were written about 1990.
One shoot, then, is coming back into relationship with Earth as a living, sacred reality. And we will be going out on the land after this worship service into that other worship space, that cathedral of Earth, water and sky!
Second shoot – Finding wisdom in other religions – a quick story and an image
Barbara Brown Taylor calls what's happening in Christianity these days a Great Awakening, perhaps the fourth in American Religion. After her doctoral degree in religious studies from Duke University, she has since studied and taught the history, culture and politics of religion and emerging church community across the nation. She now lives in Alexandria and writes of a time a couple years ago in Lent when she went into a local bank to deposit some checks. The tellers working that morning were all women – one wore a pale ivory hijab as a head covering, another had a dark red mark on her forehead, and the third had a small crucifix hanging around her neck.
She walked up and laughed. “You all look like the United Nations of banking.” the woman with the crucifix around her neck went into an office, leaving Barbara with the other two tellers.
They talk a bit on this quiet morning. Barbara is being a vegetarian for Lent; the Hindu woman gives her some recipes and asks about Christian fasting practices. The conversation turn to religious freedom in America.
The Muslim woman says, “Here, it is like Thomas Jefferson promised – very good. People here are very tolerant, curious about different religions. Much better than other places. Here there is real respect. I can be a good Muslim here.”
It's time to leave; Barbara thanks them for their insights and says, “I would wish you a Happy Easter,” hoping they would hear sincerity in her voice, “but instead, I wish you both peace.”
She starts to walk away when the Muslim teller says, “Peace of Jesus the prophet. And a very happy Easter to you.” And the Hindu woman calls out, “Happy Easter.”
When she reaches her car, Barbara realizes that she is crying. She writes, “I had only rarely felt the power of the resurrected Jesus so completely in my soul.”
When I read this I thought immediately about a day with the science club at Rocky Hill Middle School just up route 355 from here. After the kids leave for the day, I have to fill out a little demographic data sheet for the Audubon Society Green Kids program. Wow! There's only one white kid in the group. It is the United Nations. These are the new shoots. I wonder, “What are we waiting for?”
An image from John Philip Newell -- the banyan tree. Newell's Daughter Kirsten is at a dance academy and ashram in India, where she is also, as he puts it, “finding the other half of her soul.” John Philip joins them dancing under the banyan tree, an especially sacred
tree in India. The distinctive thing about the banyan tree is how its branches shoot out in all directions and then dive back down into the earth to provide secondary roots for the great spreading tree. Newell finds this tree, “a powerful image of how our great religious traditions, with their strong central trunks can reach out beyond their initial roots to grow and become stronger and provide more and more shelter and sanctuary.”
He then passes on a story about a town in Florida that once had many banyan trees, but that at some point the town council decided to trim off all the secondary roots to tidy things up. When the next major storm hit Florida, the great banyans were blown over. Newell writes, “If we pretend that our central truck is all that we need, if we refuse to grow by sending our secondary roots into the wisdom of other traditions and other nations, we will become not stronger, but weaker.”
So there you have it for this morning. Two roots and two shoots to carry with us as we make our radical commitments, as we join with each other on this journey – silence, community, reconnection with the sacred Earth, finding wisdom in other religious traditions. Roots and Shoots of radical commitment for this journey into an unknown and uncertain future for our little local expression of the church, for the church at large, and for the whole culture and planet around us.
The way will not be easy; some days will be really dark. But in the end of it all, here's what I want to be able to say, in the words of Mary Oliver, from her poem entitled, When Death Comes –
When it's over, I want to say: all my life
I was a bride married to amazement.
I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.
When it's over, I don't want to wonder
if I have made of my life something particular, and real.
I don't want to find myself sighing and frightened,
or full of argument.
I don't want to end up simply having visited this world.
This morning I don't want to end up having just visited this church. And you don't either.
That's why we make our re-commitment.
Jim Hall, Dayspring Church