The Carousel Wheel

July 27, 2014

by Rev. Dr. Donna Schaper
Senior Minister

The rivals for interpretation of this text about Ezekiel’s wheel are many. One is that Ezekiel saw the enemies of Israel all around him – and was trying to warn his people about how they were coalescing. Perhaps it was an early memo to Benjamin Netanuhu? Another is that Ezekiel was standard issue prophet, a little nuts, prone to hallucinatory experiences that wowed people, scared them to death and gave the terror an artistic frame. Prophets are prone to that self-justification, which is why St. Paul spent so much time warning prophets not to get puffed up and to judge themselves by the fruits of their visions and not just their visions. A third is simpler: Ezekiel was stoned out of his mind. And a fourth is that the vision of Ezekiel’s wild and crazy wheel was the first instance of a flying saucer.

Whatever the text really means it has had a long shelf life. Surely you know the folk song, “Ezekiel saw the wheel.” One wheel is turned by faith, the other by grace. Woody Guthrie recorded it as did Louis Armstrong, as well as countless gospel choirs. Ezekiel saw the wheel, way up in the middle of the air. Today I am going to stick with the first line of the song and forgo the interpretation. At least Ezekiel saw the wheel. Way up in the middle of the air. We too can see the wheel. And that may be all that we can do. But that little seeing can go a long way towards salvation or at least a better reason to wake up in the morning and look around.

If you were a sociologist or social psychologist, you could sum up the message in three words: constant adaptive change. If you were a biologist, you could say that we live to evolve. If you were a physicist, you would remind your listeners of the way everything is in motion, right down to the smallest particles. And if you were the pastor of Judson Memorial Church on July 27th, 2014, you would advise your listeners to fasten their seat belts on the space ship of life. You would remark on all the change. You would remind them that we used to worship in the garden room in the summer and not have air conditioning. Or ask them to use the newish bathrooms with reverence today, if and as needed, reminding the women in particular of the old women’s room. Or take a good long look at that word memorial in our name. Judson MEMORIAL church.

Let’s start with the psychology. At every turn of the wheel, at every stop on the great carousel of life, we are different. We are different physically and biologically as well as psychologically. We remain somewhat the same while turning. Those about to retire are well advised not to move close to where their offspring are living now. Why? Their offspring might move. Those who are planning to have a child will want not to move near their families in hopes of getting childcare. The parents may move or fail or die. Those looking for a partner or life companion may be looking for someone dull this time rather than someone interesting. Those in good health may find that they are not. Those who are in bad health may experience a revival. The fact that your agent sold your last four books doesn’t mean she is going to sell this one. The fact that we have always had lots of oil doesn’t mean that we will continue to do so. The wheel turns. It keeps turning. The best advice for life at any stage is to never say, “I’ll get to that when things settle down.” Things don’t settle down. They never have and they never will. The wheel turns. There is no way to stop the wheel and stay alive.

So we lost the garden room. We replaced the bathrooms. We are now in motion again as the extraordinary chapter of Michael Ellick’s ministry among us is ending. I win the prize for most bereft, by the way. Of course, I thought our ministry here would always be Ellickized. And of course, I also knew that it would not. There will be lots of time to talk about the wheel’s big turn this summer. For now, just recognize how normal it is that things don’t settle down. We can congratulate ourselves for having had him here for seven years. But like with Karl’s lovely service yesterday, it still (as one of you so elegantly put it) it still sucks.

When we become people who join Ezekiel in seeing the wheel, way up in the middle of the air, we don’t have to like the wheel we see. We can still hope for things to concretize, settle down, stop whirling. But we will find ourselves soon in the search for a more satisfying hope. We can hate the change we see or dislike it fiercely. We don’t have to like the wheel to see the wheel.

I was at a delightful retreat center in Santa Barbara last week. Casa Maria in Mendocito. The man at the desk had a twinkle in his eye most of the time. He said that everyday all day long, people came into the registration center and asked to be directed to the labyrinth so they could walk it? He learned to respond as follows: If you are still looking for the labyrinth that means you are already in it. Yup. Asking for the location of the labyrinth is a really dumb question. Or as our retreat leader said, let’s get rid of that question “Finished.” I am now finished, we say, when our hopes for ourselves march straight into the labyrinth of constant change. He suggested that we replace the word finished with the word refinished. That we imagine ourselves deepening into personal lustre by constant polishing. By constant threshing by the millstone of life. I like the idea of being refinished. I don’t like the idea of being finished.

Or consider the bicycle, another kind of labyrinth, another kind of wheel. Riding a bike is something that once you know how to do, you don’t forget. It is also a balance and power issue, both at the same time. Power often says things are going to settle down. Yavol. Balance often says the opposite, keep pumping. You’ll get somewhere. My friend Pat De Jong preached a sermon at First Church Berkeley last weekend in which she said that she and her husband, Sam ……, author of so many books on masculinity, had just finished a bike trip through Europe. They biked 32 hours a day. The first night they were so tired that they fell asleep with their helmets on their heads. When they woke up in the morning, face down on their pillows, helmets on, they laughed and laughed. They had made it through their first day, with nothing more serious than fatigue. When you see the wheel, you don’t fear fatigue or injury so much. You understand that you are turning and that you may as well peek around the next corner. People who are finished try to stop the wheel from turning. People who are biking the labyrinth of life are always building a better yesterday. People who can embrace motion understand that every saint has a past, every sinner a future. When we wheel through life, we feel the fear and turn the wheel anyway. Or better put, the wheels on the rung go round and round. Or as Ezekiel concludes the first part of his vision, there are wheels within wheels within wheels.

Let’s apply personal wisdom about wheeling – what I might even call freewheeling – to the business of the word Memorial in our name. It is the scariest thing about us. I know we live in honour of a certain past, the way Ezekiel named a specific day on which his vision arrived. And I know most of us know that this is one of multiple pasts that could claim us. But Memorials are about memory, and we remain more fundamentally about hope. While knowing that memory can breed hope.

I do hope you have read, A Critic At Large, Adam Gopnik-The New Yorker, July 7 & 14, 2014. It is titled appropriately Stones and Bones. His basic argument is that a memorial to freedom has the tightest security in the world, attracting rule obeying tourists who observe the security guards as though they were gods. Gopnik argues that it is not a living or useful memorial because its truths are so paradoxical.

“Two seemingly contradictory ideas—that it was necessary to keep the site ‘sacred’ and also necessary to rebuild it for commerce—governed the design of the site from the beginning.”

“Those who lack faith in fixed order and stable places have a harder time building monuments that must, in their nature, be monolithically stable and certain.”

“The most effective memorial in New York is the restored immigration hall at Ellis Island, and it is so effective exactly because it is a place not of enforced emotions but of unlicensed phantoms, where schoolchildren go to find the ghosts of their great-grandparents.”

“The most widespread of these monuments were the small, unpretentious stone figures of Union soldiers sold in mail-order catalogues and soon visible in every American village center. The most artistically potent were Augustus Saint-Gaudens’s monuments to the heroes of the war, most notably the Sherman monument right here on the Grand Army Plaza and the bas-relief on the Boston Common made in honor of Robert Gould Shaw’s black regiment.”

“Saint-Gaudens was so successful that we now register his works more as urban décor than as elegiac objects. That may be the fate of all big-city memorials: the Arc de Triomphe is a traffic roundabout

“The Statue of Liberty was so resonantly re-imagined as a monument to immigration that few remember it was built as an anti-slavery monument, uniting Republican France and the victorious Union government; the broken slave shackle around Liberty’s foot is today only a detail in specialists’ photographs.”

….the greatest of modern American memorials, Maya Lin’s 1982 design for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, in Washington. She made it local and indigeneous instead of grand and fixed.”

“Few people now recall just how confident right-wing opinion was that the Lin memorial was an insult and a failure, one that would have to be remedied by the –ugly and now overlooked-statue of a trio of soldiers, parachuted into the memorial site at the last minute. Its astonishing success was a marker in the triumph of American abstraction: no one could any longer argue that pure form was incapable of expressing profound emotion. The laconic eloquence of the minimal gesture, its potent lack of insincere rhetoric and overstatement, was apparent. At first uncertain about how to handle this intrusion, the caretakers of the wall came to welcome it.”

Or consider Okalahoma City: “In the end, a simple ‘field of empty chairs’ was created, one named for each of the victims, with smaller chairs for the children killed.”

When orchestrated as part of an official design, in memorials, people feel barked out rather than overheard.”

“Will any of the architectural memorials be half as moving, or as fitting, as the ‘Project for the Immediate Reconstruction of Manhattan’s Skyline’ (as it was then named), which appeared a mere six months after the disaster: eighty-some searchlights rising at night from the ground to space itself, or so it seemed, forming two violet columns of lights where the towers had once been. Fragility and resilience, loss, and persistence, spirit and substance—all of that was expressed by the two luminous pillars in way that drains and benches and wall labels can’t. Improvised memorials suit self-organizing cities.

Not long ago, I was dragooned into a memorial scheme for a ninety-five-year-old, recently dead in New York. In an instant’s impulse, and violating God knows how many Department of Health regulations, his out-of-town family chose to take taxis to his apartment after midnight and spread his ashes in the median on the avenue outside. It was where he belonged. Memorials don’t live easily in liberal cities. But memories do. He’s there. So are we.”

What can we learn about memorials from dead memorials and living ones? We can learn that we have to participate in them very simply in order for them to be good for us. The unridden bicycle is an unridden bicycle.

Finally, if cycling doesn’t strike you as a good direction for life, or the memorial business doesn’t work for you, consider a biological one. Beth Shapiro is a scientist who is working on de-extinction. Yup. De-extinction. She brings back species from the death. She tells us a lot about adaptive change and how constant adaptive change is the way to survive. She worries about bringing back animals that were extinct because they won’t help the wheel. She says that she is much more interested in de extinction so that we can find out how some species survive climate change, which they have. For her, evolution is God. She is not concerned about any one species so much as about habitat. In the same way as a gardener I care about soil, not flowers, and as a minister, I care about process not product. In matters of habitat and soil and process, we find wheels that can turn. With biology and evolution, get rid of species who gum up the wheels. Or at least withdraw their oxygen. Thus the only question around here is how the memorial remains unfinished. How we never let it stop turning. I know we have a great tradition of innovation and I also know how ironic that is. So deeply conservative are we, while thinking we are so Avant. We have pretty much been the same process for over a 100 years. Innovation as a tradition. Open, as we like to say, in so many ways.

There are wheels within wheels within wheels. We ride them as a way of life, a way of living, a way of living for hope to result from our memories.

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