Laying On of Hands

Ancient Testimony ~ Deuteronomy 7:8-13

October 11, 2009

by Rev. Dr. Donna Schaper
Senior Minister

“God let us out with a mighty hand…”

It is a funny time. The President has received the Nobel Peace Prize while considering an increase in troops in Afghanistan and encouraging gay men and women to come out in the military. In an equally uncanny way, Tufts University has just banned sex when roommates are present. The university has stipulated, “Any sexual activity in the room should not interfere with a roommate’s privacy, study habits, or sleep.” When I went to college, they just banned sex. Period. No stipulations at all. It’s a funny time, not like previous times, although connected to them. Feels a lot like “track changes” from a hostile editor.

Most of us know how to use track changes to edit a document. Very few of us appreciate the mystery of that mechanism. It often is very hard to know which track is tracking which track or which change is changing which change. Even with mysterious mechanisms, multiplying conundrums in the military world, and sex in the dorms—unless someone is trying to study, fat chance—it can be very hard to figure out what is going on. In fact, what is going on? That is my big question, and it is the one to which I will get. On what can we lay our hands? What can we grab hold of? And what touches us? What lays its hands on us? I have already overstimulated you, with news of Nobels and wars and gay people in the military, sex in the dorm room, and stipulations which don’t really stipulate all the possibilities. Studying for exams? No sex. Just studying? Well, if they are quiet. I hope I have already bothered you, even intrigued you, with the great mystery of track changes as both mystery and mechanism. My more important hunch is that this conglomeration is less overwhelming than what you will each look at, in different ways, tomorrow morning. Overstimulation is the name of Monday morning’s document.

So let’s slow down. Let’s actually slow way down and consider the notion of track or tracking. I have said that track changes are both mechanical and mysterious. What a fabulous way to edit, cooperatively and democratically. What a great gift to be able to screen and rescreen words so that we get their many-faceted benefits. Track changes can also be a great spiritual metaphor, helping us to understand where we are when we are there, and also allowing us to be in conversation with others about where we are. We can’t know what touches us if we don’t know where we are or what we are experiencing. Laying on of hands or being touched or touching—all these actions require a certain presentness. As in, “being present.” Some tracks can change or touch us. Other tracks can just confuse us. Consider natural tracks, like tracks in the snow or the sand. Some more ancient people are experts in tracking. They know how to tell a young animal from an older one. They know how to determine when the animal or herd came through. Archaeologists can interpret the tracks of fossils. In our modern times, we do a modern kind of tracking, like being able to find out who edited a document when, because the computer dates it for us. I want to argue today something that may surprise you. Or at least I hope it will. Things are getting better. Track changes improve the document. Matters are improving. The poor will yet be saved. Health insurance is on its way. You will know a great joy in your own lifetime, even if you never have.

The usual way of doing this sermon is to tell you that the ancients had better tracking mechanisms than we do—and that things are getting worse and worse. If only we could go back to the way things never were, we would be in touch with God. I am going to try to do it differently today and to suggest that if you will lay positive hands on the future, it will lay positive hands on you. To me that joint gripping is not just a psychological trick but a spiritual reality. Take a look at the text and let it show you how to vault into a positive future. God has led us out by a mighty hand. Pharaoh is not in charge; God is.

I love the anthropomorphic notion of God having a mighty hand. In fact, I just love hands. (And not just because I have had a summer of thumb disability and a current right index finger that has lost its touch. These personal matters do make me love hands!) But more than that, I love holding hands. I love handmade gloves and scarves. I love handy people, especially those who know how to fix a fence or build a birdhouse. I love the language of hands. “That columnist didn’t lay a finger on him. He tried. But he didn’t get a finger on him.” Or in the power dynamic of the text, between God and Pharaoh, God’s hands were mightier than Pharaoh’s. But if you want to put someone down, just say he is not in his own hands but in the hands of someone else. Some of us believe that God has the whole world in God’s hands; others wonder who actually has a hold on whom and we don’t think the game is just wrestling.

My interest in approaching the future positively comes out of the trust I have in this great covenantal text. God has already led us out of Egypt by a mighty hand. Pharaoh may look to be in charge but he is not. Great things are coming. The best wine hasn’t even been served yet. The best bread has yet to be baked.

Unfortunately, we have pretty much reversed this text, psychologically, politically, and practically. Many of us live as though Pharaoh either was in charge or could be in charge, and we turn ourselves over to Pharaoh’s hands. We both track reality falsely and we put ourselves, therefore and thereby, into the hands of masters who don’t guide us well. We don’t need Allen Ginsburg’s great howling poem to tell us that some of the greatest minds of our generation have given themselves over to false and cruel masters. We don’t need Howard Thurman’s many reminders of mysticism, above and beyond reality, to remind us that there are layers to life and that it really matters which layer you live on. It really matters which track change you let change and touch you.

There are those of you who prefer the normal interpretations. Things used to be great and now they are getting worse. If you will give me just a little attention, I’ll try to disabuse you. I mean to disabuse you of that abusing perception. First of all, most of us would agree that we often confuse reality with our perceptions. For example, just to let the tracking image sink a little deeper, let me tell you a joke. A very rich New Yorker moved to Texas and built himself a grand mansion. He had spent quite a bit of his life on safaris, with backwoodsmen of all nations and with ancient markers of trails. He imagined himself an expert on the art of tracking wild animals. When the Texas house was finished, he discovered that you could actually buy dinosaur tracks and put them on your own property, in a long-runner-type affair. So he bought the dinosaur runner and put it on his property in Texas. When the great house and project were all done, he invited over his nearest neighbor, who was also very rich. He showed his neighbor the dinosaur tracks, at which point the neighbor exclaimed, “I had no idea they had come this close to the house.”

Very few of us know which layer of reality or track change has come close enough to our house to touch us or own us. We just don’t know. So we pick up the interpretive theory du jour, which today is that the past was better than the future could ever be and so we should work hard in the present to get a piece of the past back into the future. Either that or move to the suburbs or go off the grid. We imagine we know, we try to know, we hope to know, we act like we know. But we do not know. When we get into what seems to me to be the higher pessimism of the Religious Left right now, these are dangerous matters. They are life and death matters to us personally and to us politically and culturally.

Track with me toward touching and being touched. What’s got a hand on us and how can we be freed from Pharaoh for the mighty hand of the genuinely mighty? I will distinguish between negative touch and positive touch, nostalgic, pharisaic touch and hopeful Godly touch, all the while knowing that these things blend and kiss, date and make up, flow in and out of each other. Thank God we have track changes so we can see the developments.

I was astonished to see at Barnard College a poster suggesting “A Day of Service.” Why would one want to do a day of service, I thought? Well, the poster told me why: “In order to enhance the meaning in your own life, and to combat personal emptiness, please consider a day of service.” People really do want to be touched by the mystery of meaning. All people. But I’ll never forget what my yoga instructor told me a decade ago when I asked the stupid question of when I could expect to know yoga and how long would the practice take me. He said, “Your whole life.” May I suggest that we let our whole life teach us yoga or meaning and that we not be surprised if the full touch doesn’t happen without that kind of commitment? Pharaoh has you if you think a day of service or a year of practice will save you. Tell Pharaoh you haven’t got time to rush like that. Yes, to rush like that. Plus, you don’t need to rush like that. Because of a mighty hand, which brought us into covenant with it, the future will be gorgeous, for us and for the poor. We don’t need to rush toward it.

In the immigration conversation we are learning a lot about what is making people so mean. Sometimes it is just meanness and other times it is genuine respect for the law, fear of overpopulation, and fear of losing jobs, a fear which is a multi-purpose employer. When we plead for changes in the broken legal system and call it Pharaoh, we often find ourselves talking to just ourselves. There could be some Pharaoh in the people who call other people Pharaoh. Another way to imagine a positive future and to learn God’s mighty hand is to enjoy a blessed confusion and a holy eagerness to learn from those we calls enemies. Right now the name calling going both ways between the Religious Right and the Religious Left is a serious obstacle to justice and therefore a serious aid to Pharaoh. We call them nut jobs and they call us naive. Pharaoh has laid a finger on our debate. We need to get that finger off the debate.

Likewise, I would say the same to my friends who are calling the present moment “Bush’s third term.” I would like to know what we are getting out of this perennial pessimism. This is the Left talking to itself, making sure it looks good to itself and its peers, and making sure it has that great sophistication known in the phrase “Oh my Gawd,” which is usually in addition to being self-serving also godless. “Oh my Gawd, look at the health plan. It is insipid.” “Oh my Gawd, look at Afghanistan. Horrifying. If I were in charge, we’d just pull the troops out.” “Oh my Gawd, why don’t those children in Harlem eat better vegetables and more greens?” Well, I could go on and show my own version of cynical pessimism.

Instead, I want to urge you to change tracks, to let yourself be touched by the mighty hand of the mighty one and to imagine a future that is better than the past. I want you to be released to a great now in which the wine and bread are tasty. I want you to get the hand of Pharaoh off your back and to stop thinking he/it can’t be beat. Pharaoh is already beat. The arc of justice is long and it is bending toward justice; and you—here, now, in this moment—are a part of that great stretch and posture. Hold it. Breathe it. Enjoy it.

The best definition of stress I know is that it is the signal that I don’t want to be here now. Well, I do want to be here, now, because there is no other place to be. Imagine a jazzy, bluesy great future, one which has a great burst of creativity because mean people learn to talk to self-satisfied people and they learn to walk toward the future holding hands.

Look, I personally wish Obama had refused the Nobel Peace Prize. That would have been an elegant and complicating act, a deft back-step on behalf of the future, pledged by the past. He is clearly touched by the mighty hand and its forward thrust. He clearly understands the power of promise. Maybe we will learn it, too. What is it? The mechanism and the mystery of track changes and how we let both touch us and thrust us into the time of God.

55 Washington Square South New York, NY 10012 | phone: 212-477-0351 | fax: 212-995-0844