Bound and Unbound

March 29, 2015

by Rev. Dr. Donna Schaper
Senior Minister

Holy week is about opening and closing, binding and unbinding, tying up and releasing the ties that bind us. How can it be about both? By the magic and mystery of grace and the alchemy of love. We bind by choice not by necessity. We bind by election, not because we need to huddle together for warmth.

We should have sung Blest be the Ties that Bind, our hearts in Christian love because that would be a good theme song for the Christian life. We are to tie ourselves up to and with each other and we are to untie ourselves.

The donkey is our first instruction. Jesus orders the disciples to go steal a donkey. They are to untie it and bring it to him for his triumphant rise into Jerusalem where he will die. The rolled away stone is our second instruction. First the stone is put onto the grave, then the stone is released. We tie. We untie. We bind. We unbind. We use and then we cease from using. Even the spiritual motion of holy week can’t finally be used as a self-help instruction. It can only be experienced as a spiritual motion, like reath, first held, then released, over and over again.

The end of March is also upon us with gas leaks leaking the urban confidence out of us and mental illness in pilots leaking what is left of our trust in the skies. We come to these palms with a little PTSD, Post traumatic stress disorder, one of the ugliest phrases I have ever heard for good old fashioned fear. What if the pilot crashes deliberately into a mountain in the Alps? Or the pipes that heat our water are somehow flawed, and can’t make their connection one with another? Those of you who were here for 9 – 11 smelled that smell on Thursday. The smell of something burning and you hoped it wasn’t too human.

We come to big subjects in a big time at the end of a long winter. We also have the gift of the climate ribbon here with us today and at the offertory we are going to add a ribbon of our own to it. We thank Andrew Boyd, son of our friend Ros Boyd, for loaning the ribbons to us. Many hope this climate ribbon will become like the AIDS quilt, large, repeatable, showing up to remind people of our fear of loss and our hopes for gain. At the end of the service we will bind a fear to the cross like ribbon. And in that binding, we will bless the ties that bind us.

The last time I put a ribbon on the tree, I said I would hate to lose waterfalls. I once had a job in the last century, in the nineties, that had me driving around the four counties of Western Massachusetts every day. I average 100 miles a day. I visited small churches in the Berkshires and on the Vermont border. I never used the main roads but always used the back roads and my version of a coffee break was to find all the water falls in Western Massachusetts. I even made a map for my successor to use. I was up to 130 or so. I would hate to think that something would happen to those waterfalls and I think they are probably remote enough to be safe. I both don’t think of myself as a protector of the waters falling and I do think I am. Am I bound to waterfalls? Yes, but mostly as someone who enjoys them. They are not mine, nor do they belong to me. They belong to Jerusalem.

My friend Mary Luti wrote this about responsibility and love.

She says, One Columbus Day weekend, the prayer of confession lumped us all in with the Conquistadors: "Oh God," we declared in unison, "we have enslaved your people and raped your land." Another time we had to say sorry for hating our bodies. I don't treat my body as well as it deserves, but I can't honestly say I hate it. Some confessions stick in the throat.

But I love confession anyway. I don't even mind being lumped in with Conquistadors every now and then. I know my pedestrian sins are not the moral equivalent of mass murder. But I also know that, as someone once put it, over the years I've collected a lot of sewage in my heart.

Faced with huge moral choices, like whether to hide Jews from the SS, I hope I'd hide them. But I wouldn't be surprised if I turned them all in. I get Mother Teresa's reply to someone who declared her a living saint: "There's a Nazi sleeping in my soul."

She continues: I think of my sinfulness as a chronic condition—it's not a great thing to have, it flares up and causes trouble, but with treatment it's survivable. I also think that denying my human condition sets me up for worse things than run-of-the-mill sinning.

Some people find confession depressing. They want to hear that they're good, and getting better all the time. They want church to further their self-improvement projects. I'm not so keen on that. Every time becoming a better person has been my goal, pride has always been too happy to help me achieve it. That's just the way it is with us sinners.

This is what I mean by ostentatious humility, what Mark Twain argued as the real human condition, how proud we are about how humble we are. Even our confessions are grandiose. So how did we get so off base about understanding our human responsibilities? How did we become so big, even in our confessions.

I think we missed the mark of our true humanity. Thomas Aquinas said, Men use what they ought to enjoy and they enjoy what they ought to use.

The Westminster Catechism argues that our purpose in life is to Glorify god and enjoy god and do so forever. Westminster caWe are not to use nature but to enjoy it. At the same time, whatever your waterfall is, whatever love you put on your ribbon will want to be acquainted with your fear.

Human beings have the power to annihilate nature. We have the power of nuclear weapons. We have the power of neglect. We have the power of selfishness, all of which combine to put our home in the world at danger. Yes we do. As Joseph Sittler puts it, You can try to drown that responsibility by skiing or in bourbon. You can trot it off to Bermuda,or push under with accelerating occupations or say our prayers or pour bourbon on it but it always goes along with us and survives and talks back.

I don’t know what happened to you on Thursday when the buildings on Second Avenue exploded but I do know what happened to me. My inbox lit up with people from all over the world and congregation asking if I was ok. Well. Was I ok? Yes, if you mean by ok that no body I knew was directly impacted. We began reaching for the things we can touch. My daughter, who is a bit of a catastrophe tracker, phoned and said, “Mom, you weren’t there right? “ I said no I was not there.” She said, great, bye, got to go. Same thing happened with the German plane. “Two Americans were on board, we were told. Most were Germans.” That is supposed to be some kind of relief. Blest be the ties that bind our hearts in nuclear or national love. We are so very small, as small and common as that donkey, that all we know to do in the name of faceless tragedy is to put a face on it. Were you there, Mom? No, I was not there. But I will be singing “were you there on Thursday. Were you there when they crucified my Lord? Were you there when someone you’ll never know was crashed into the Alps or blown up in a so-called random gas explosion?

Holy week thrusts us into these binds and ties and tethers. It ties us to each other by tying us to Jesus’ death.
That tie can be a bind and it can be a release. But first and foremost it is a joy. We are tied to each other.

Richard Wilbur’s old poem, from 1921, helps us:

Advice to the Prophet

When you come, as you soon must, to the streets of our city, Mad-eyed from stating the obvious, Not proclaiming our fall but begging us In God’s name to have self-pity, Spare us all word of the weapons, their force and range, The long numbers that rocket the mind; Our slow, unreckoning hearts will be left behind, Unable to fear what is too strange. Nor shall you scare us with talk of the death of the race. How should we dream of this place without us?-- The sun mere fire, the leaves untroubled about us, A stone look on the stone’s face? Speak of the world’s own change. Though we cannot conceive Of an undreamt thing, we know to our cost How the dreamt cloud crumbles, the vines are blackened by frost, How the view alters. We could believe, If you told us so, that the white-tailed deer will slip Into perfect shade, grown perfectly shy, The lark avoid the reaches of our eye, The jack-pine lose its knuckled grip On the cold ledge, and every torrent burn As Xanthus once, its gliding trout Stunned in a twinkling. What should we be without The dolphin’s arc, the dove’s return, These things in which we have seen ourselves and spoken? Ask us, prophet, how we shall call Our natures forth when that live tongue is all Dispelled, that glass obscured or broken In which we have said the rose of our love and the clean Horse of our courage, in which beheld The singing locust of the soul unshelled, And all we mean or wish to mean. Ask us, ask us whether with the worldless rose Our hearts shall fail us; come demanding Whether there shall be lofty or long standing When the bronze annals of the oak-tree close.

come demanding Whether there shall be lofty or long standing When the bronze annals of the oak-tree close.

This is what we keep untied. We don’t make connections. We only know how to make the nuclear or the national kind of connection. By nuclear I mean Mom, you weren’t there were you? Ok, bye.

We have annihilating power in nervous and passionate hands. And there is no certainty that people will not use it. It can be the slow drip kind where too much development is allowed to happen for too long and the inspectors can’t keep up with it or the kind hat explodes when a gas line becomes untied to part of itself. Disattached I think is the right word. Untied. Untethered.

Abuse of nature is use without grace. There is an integrity of joy. Most of the integrity is in the ability to see something or someone beyond yourself and its need for you. I am not accusing my daughter of doing what we all do, which is to seek out touch. Instead, I am saying that this week is holy because it calls us out of that center on the self. When we de center and go into the whole city, even if we do so with what can only be called a kind of ostentatious humility, we not only miss the old lady standing next to the park bench, staring. We look at beautiful things with the shine worn off. We enter staring without beholding fornication without finding.

So can we change? Will we change? Will we use what is to be glorified so much that we use it up? Will we find a way to get beyond abuse? Repeating, abuse of nature is use without grace.

I can at least give you one self-help tip. It comes from my week at tennis camp. Warren and I went to tennis camp in Daytona beach. The first thing the coach wanted me to do was change my grip. That’s almost as audacious as me wanting you to get better at tieing and untying. Change my grip? He had to be kidding. I tried for the first morning to hit the ball with what he called the Basis of discovery is Australian grip. It hurt my hand so bad I thought I would be out for the whole week. Then he started pushing the Continental grip. Same thing. You see if I make the ask here too big you will once again be failed by another preacher, another coach, who will ask you to do something that is too damn big, too damn hard, too damn out of your hand’s capacity to hold it.

The coach handed out quite the little document, called the Role of fear in inhibiting growth or making connections aka tennis camps.

“If I change I could get worse.
If I change, I might lose my strengths. S
Strangely if I win I might not have as much fun.
I don’t like the feeling that goes with change.
I thought I at least had a little going for me but when I tried to change I lost everything.

The coach threatened me: You’ll just stay at a 3.0 level. I said, yes. Exactly. QUe Hay Problema? When it comes to tennis I don’t mind the 3.0 level. When it comes to waterfalls, I’d like to excel at enjoyment. In tennis, a B minus is just fine.

Holy Week and the Christian Gospel and the man Jesus each ask us to do something as large as changing your grip. We are to move into an economics of joy and out of an economics of use. We are to challenge the abusers – the Wall Street ones and the violent ones, the domestically violent ones and the internationally violent ones. Right use is based on delight. There is a profound dialectic between use and enjoyment, between were you there, Mom, and were you there at the cross. To use a thing is to make it instrumental to some purpose.

Some things are to be used. To enjoy a thing is to permit it to be what it is. The Earth is the theater of God’s delight in creation.

Think Wine. It is to be enjoyed not to be used.

You can use a donkey of course. You can use a climate ribbon. Thoreau knew that we have become the tools of our tools.

Jesus entered Jerusalem to enter Jerusalem. He did not enter it to save it, or us, from sin. Jesus entered Jerusalem to enter Jerusalem. There he lived. There he died. He entered Jerusalem because he loved it. He was tied to it. Tethered to it. He’d probably put Jerusalem on his climate ribbon and confess his love for it. Then he would bind us to that love so that we could be released into each other. Were you there?

The Climate Ribbon is an inter-faith, participatory ritual that uses art and storytelling to grieve what each of us stands to lose to Climate Chaos, while fostering an “intimate solidarity” that helps us unite to fight against it. Grounded in ritual traditions from around the world, the Climate Ribbon has a powerful cross-cultural resonance that helps us move through the darkness of the climate crisis towards hope and action while raising up frontline voices and getting them heard in places of power. After its spectacular launch at the People’s Climate March in New York, the Climate Ribbon has been inundated with requests from all over the world, including sites all along the lead-up to the next big climate mobilization in Paris.

The process is simple: In a moment of deep reflection, write on a ribbon what you love and hope to never lose to Climate Chaos. Share it with others. When you are moved by someone else’s ribbon, tie it to your wrist, committing to work to beat back Climate Chaos so that our worst fears never come true. Together, our promises weave a giant tapestry of commitment among all of us for a healthy, sustainable planet.

For Palm Sunday, we plan to use the climate ribbon as a palm. We will join our forbears in marching around town – probably Washington Square Park and the New York University Law School (which has circular benches in its courtyard) – and ask people to join us in a combination of parade and lament. We were able to use the ribbon with great liturgical success around the Climate March in September of 2014. Through it people were able to express a kind of confession, a kind of lament and a kind of absolution.

For Palm Sunday we want to connect the themes of love and loss to that last day of freedom for Jesus in the city. Part of the power of the parade is that we know it is being notice by the authorities. We know the danger of the march and its potential loss for all involved. We also know its promise, that liberation once stated out loud has a hard time being put back in its cage. We know that power comes when people experience the coincidence of loss and love and tell each other that they did. They find it hard to refuse their own power once they have spoken their truth. To wave the ribbons will be a new kind of palm, one needed in this scary time when even the weather frightens us.

We also intend to install the ribbons already collected and connected to each other – from the climate march and dozens of other activities – in our sanctuary for Palm Sunday and Easter. Like the AIDS quilt, the climate ribbon will become a traveling symbol, an “ethical spectacle,” like the Ark we built for the demonstration and the Wall Street Golden Calf we built for OCCUPY. Those of you who remember Roz Boyd who died last year will be glad that her son brought us the ribbon.

There will also be an inflatable globe. We have come to realize, reluctantly, that these movements need visual symbols. Somehow the issue of the climate is just too large. That initial image of the earth being seen from space has imprinted on our brains. Now we need more pictures.

Why use the big five-dollar words like confession? When you write on a ribbon what you would most hate to lose during climate disruption, sometimes you are aware of your own responsibility for your own loss. Someone said “a babbling brook,” and asked if he should keep driving his car. What was the cost/benefit ratio? Another said “a loss of confidence in the environment, which results in a loss of confidence in me about me and about us.” That is less a confession than a lament, a sadness spoken out loud to a community from an individual. In both cases the saying of our losses out loud results in a kind of absolution. It is not complete. It is not just about sin and forgiveness but instead includes them as one of the ribbon’s harmonic themes. When the individual loss is connected to the larger ribbon, people know a slight salvation, a little more security, and a little less fear. Their anxiety receives absolution.

Climate Ribbon is a project of Beautiful Trouble and the People’s Climate Arts. The Core team consists of Kate McNeely, Andrew Boyd, Rae Abileah and Gan Golan.

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