Sermons

Stammering God's Name

Ancient Testimony ~ John 12:20-33

March 29, 2009

by Rev. Dr. Donna Schaper
Senior Minister

I always mess things up when I get too attached to them. I can squeeze the juice out of the lemon of life and think of it as a virtue—because squeezing, tightening, holding on, articulating, getting it right is a virtue. A lot of religion is about commitment. About keeping on keeping on. About getting up ten times when you are knocked down nine. About staying married to life, through sickness and health, for richer, for poorer, for better, for worse. You could argue that religious faith is all about attachment, about encouraging attachment and seeing attachment as a good thing.

Another whole beat in religion is about letting go, about letting the lemon sit there, whole and unsqueezed. Another whole beat in religion is that of dis-attaching. That is the beat of Lent and Easter. Let go in order to have. Relinquish in order to enjoy. Lighten your grip in order to get a grip.

Today’s text is another agricultural parable, with Jesus using a grain of wheat on its way to being bread as his image. Ezra Pound wrote, “The image is not an idea. It is a radiant node or cluster; it is what I . . . call a vortex, from which and through which, and into which, ideas are constantly rushing.1 We let the image of the grain go in order to have the image of the bread. We let the grain die so that it can flower and fruit. We divorce in order to marry. These ideas are so large that we can only say that we stammer them. We are differently-abled, or disabled, when it comes to religious speech. We stutter and stammer. We also speak. But first, in very nude, very childish, very vulnerable ways, we stutter and stammer.

Cardinal Leo Joseph Suenens, the late prelate of Brussels, was known to whisper something into the ears of new priests at their ordination ceremonies: “Remember, God has called you to the priesthood because he does not trust you to be a layman.” Stammering is an equal opportunity employer.

Unless the grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, says Jesus, it will not live.

Unless you learn the arts and crafts of vulnerability, you will not live. Unless you learn to die, you won’t rise. Unless you learn to let go, you won’t have. These are the religious movements of March 29th—and not just in the year of our Lord, 2009.

One of my clergy friends wrote a long book review of books about dying in last week’s Christian Century. I was jealous of his words—because they transcended the usual stammering about death. He reviewed three books: Nothing to Be Frightened Of, by Julian Barnes; The Thing about Life Is That One Day You’ll Be Dead, by David Shields; and Mrs. Hunter’s Happy Death: Lessons on Living from People Preparing to Die, by John Fanestil. Knopf published the first two and Doubleday the last two, so somebody someplace thought some people were willing to buy books about death and dying. They were surely taking a lesson from that very popular best seller, Tuesdays with Morrie, about Mitch Albom’s account of his conversations with a dying professor. Apparently we get a wisdom boost in the great smoothie of life if we are on the verge of death. All professors, and clergy, are dying; only a few know it.

Barnes gives us this nugget: “I don’t believe in God, but I miss Him . . . I miss the God that inspired Italian painting and French stained glass, German music, and English chapter houses, and those tumbledown heaps of stone on Celtic headlands which were once symbolic beacons in the darkness and the storm.” Many of us could say the same, although we might be more in the stammering mode. I don’t believe in God but I miss a sense that everything is going to turn out all right, whatever “all right” is. In other words, death begs the question of God and many of us turn out to be beggars. Death stammers the question of God and many of us find out we are stammerers. There is an innocence and un-attachment, even a nudity, to our stammering, once we face the question of death. Some of us even stop justifying ourselves for a few minutes. We find our occupations and preoccupations somewhat small: the way some youth are intolerant of some seniors who just can’t seem to learn Facebook or, on the flip, the annoying vitality of many people under 40. We find these large things somehow small in the great scheme of things.

Death is a great leveler.

Finnish composer Jean Sibelius used to join the “lemon table” at the Kamp restaurant in Helsinki, at which he and his fellow diners were not just permitted but required to talk about death. The lemon is the Chinese symbol for death. Many sages advise that the road to wisdom is stammering early and often about death.

Oddly, there is very little talk or even stammers about death in our death-phobic culture. We have so medicalized the matter that it’s hard to get a decent death without a lawyer at your side. We don’t even use the word funeral any more, preferring the phrase “celebration of life,” which is a fine stammer, but also a great linguistic cover-up over the nudity of death. Death-phobic cultures deal in a lot of death, militarily, medically, and financially—because death has a way of knocking the door down, no matter how tightly the door is locked. Death-phobic cultures export and externalize death—when we could gain so much from its internalization and import.

What could we get out of a friendlier attitude toward the grain of wheat’s dying? A lot, I believe. For me, I could find myself happily dis-attached from much more. Does it really matter so much that this worship service, or the next one, or the last one, be just right? Does it not matter more that I stand here a little naked, a little afraid, a little humble in the face of the big stuff that we purport to know and need? What about showing up at the lemon table and knowing that all humanity is there—even Bill O’Reilly, who just lost UPS as a sponsor for his program because he stalked other journalists.2 Talk about hanging on to control so hard that you had to cloak yourself and disguise yourself to do it. This stalking alone should provide us with a good word for vulnerability and nudity and transparency.

The stalking of journalists is a large and important issue. I could waste a whole week exposing O’Reilly’s lack of disclosure and over-exposure. Or consider the possibility that several LGBTQ shelters for youth will be closed in this city. I stand aghast at that because I know what happens to gay people in “regular” shelters. But how do we make the decision to fight? When do we fight? What about the cuts in Medicare? Or the soon to come hefty increase in transit fares? And what if you only have one week to fight these huge issues, because you know three more biggies are on their way next week or in the next e-mail? I love the line, “There is a hurricane brewing in the Caribbean and it is heading straight for you,” which we used, often, in Miami to help us not take ourselves too seriously. What I really think is that many of us face not just mission creep but mission leap: we go overboard on the small things and neglect the larger.

The larger rhythms of life are these, she stammers: we may dare vulnerability and failure, even death, in order to be alive. We may lose to gain. Under-attachment to results often produces the best results.

Death is life’s big hammer and stammer. Like poetry, it refuses to be rushed and has its own rhythms. Poets don’t make arguments; they reveal mysteries. Poets also die, as will you, as will I, as will my beloved children and yours. These are the realities of life, not the ongoing stutter of injustice or the way the great tumbler rolls the dice for or at you.

As a gardener and an amateur poet, I can’t end this sermon without some strong practical images. We cultivate the dirt once the seed is dropped in it. I hear that some folk are doing “guerilla gardening” in Bed-Stuy next weekend. I am appalled. Even though I love guerillas and gardening! They are going to drop seed on lots of empty lots. They even have a rain date listed so that if it is raining they can drop the seeds the next week. Now this sort of thing bothers me as much as a death-phobic culture or person. First of all, rain is good for seeds. Why do you need a rain date when a good gardener knows the best thing for the grain of wheat is for it to rain right after you put it in! Bad weather is a great teacher. Our attachment to sunshine is clearly something else that needs to be broken. But more importantly, you don’t just scatter seed. Even Jesus knew that. You dig it in. You aerate it as it comes up with a hoe. You tend a broken seed on its way to bread. Accepting death is not spiritual hocus pocus so much as a lifestyle and life-way.

So practically, cultivate vulnerability. Cultivate not knowing which of 25 issues you ought to attend this week. Explore your vulnerability, the place where you are broken. Find its thread and treasure its thread. If you are irritated by teaching old people the Internet, imagine how you will irritate young people when you are old. Enjoy the irritation. For God’s sake, stop treating the old, whether things or people, like they are reminders of something you don’t want to be reminded of. Love the death that comes from sharp criticism of you or what you love. Be less afraid of being hurt than of being broken open, like a seed breaks open on its way to bread. Check out the Website, StickK (www.stickk.com). It is about people who have failed to be attached to what they want to be attached to. It is for people trying to write dissertations but who don’t do it. Or who want to lose weight and can’t. You get the picture. StickK punishes you when you don’t write or do binge. One woman, a smart woman, pays $50.00 a month to the George Bush Library if she doesn’t do a chapter a month on her thesis. Why? She hates Bush, hates herself for hating Bush, and hates herself for not writing her thesis. That’s why she wanted an anti-charity as her stick.

Self-beating is not my idea of a good spiritual practice. There are better ones. Like dying to live. Like being vulnerable as a form of protection. Like letting go in order to have. Like breaking what needs to be broken open, and building what needs to be built. Better than either stick or carrot foolishness is an embrace of death. Better to stammer as a child about it than to program other punishments, or even rewards.

Unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground, it cannot flower. Amen.

 

1Pound, Ezra. Gaudier-Brzeska: A Memior (1916)
2Amanda Terkel, Managing Editor of ThinkProgress, had the privilege of being stalked by Bill O’Reilly’s team of journalists (http://thinkprogress.org/2009/03/23/watters-ambush/). We should all be so dangerous…

 
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