Sunday, May 20, 2012
“Being the Love of God in the World”
20 May 2012
The Reverend Jonathan A. Voorhees
St. Joseph’s Chapel
The Seventh Sunday after Easter
Well, here we are, with the end in sight, but we’re not quite there. With just a week left of classes, I am tired. But I’m not prepared for final exams. There is a fatigue that is deep at this time of year; it is physical, emotional, and spiritual. We, like the seniors in the class of 2012, are ready for the year to be over, but we’re not ready to say goodbye. You have to dig deep for inspiration at this time of year. This sermon is about just that kind of digging.
This has also been a very challenging two weeks for the Kent community, and Canterbury School, with the Memorial Service for Donny Gowan last Monday. Donny grew up in this community, and he coached here before becoming head basketball coach at Canterbury. Donny is one of the most positive people I have ever met in my life. For those affected by his untimely death, there are no easy answers. But the outpouring of love and support for his family since last week has been extraordinary; it has made a difference. It has lifted them up at a heartbreaking time, creating the vision for healing that will come in the future. But now there is pain and loss.
Even in the midst of sorrow, ordinary people around you have been digging deep, looking for hope in hard times. Being with Donny’s basketball team on Monday, I could sense the transformation he had brought to those players’ lives, however incomplete it feels right now. Like many others, I saw Donny’s own vocation and success as a coach as deeply connected to his late father’s example and legacy. Donny’s work at Canterbury emerged from grief transformed, and it was beautiful to watch him grow. Faith in God is about continued transformation, and I have no doubt that the hope and transformation of God comes to those in need by the people around them, doing ordinary acts of love, digging deep, and finding hope. God comes into the world, however imperfectly, by our own actions and words.
As I thought about Donny and Don his father, I was reminded of the book Hunting For Hope, subtitled “A Father’s Journeys,” by Scott Russel Sanders. The memoir is an intent examination of the world’s problems, especially the destruction of the environment. The book is part meditation, part travel journal as the author hikes the Rocky Mountains with his teenage son Jesse. The father and son have moved into that vulnerable and often humorous stage of their relationship where the father can do nothing right.
The dialogue on the hike is rich between the environmentalist educator and his high school son who, unapologetically, likes to spend time in malls. They begin their discussion on the trail, after several hours of silence, due to the son’s accusation that his father ruins everything.
“’How do I ruin everything?’
‘You don’t want to know,’ he said.
‘I want to know. What is it about me that grates on you?’…
‘You wouldn’t understand,’ he said.
‘You’re so out of touch.’
‘With my whole world. You hate everything that’s fun. You hate television and movies and video games. You hate my music.’
‘I like some of your music. I just don’t like it loud.’
‘You hate advertising,’ he said quickly, rolling now. ‘You hate billboards and lotteries and developers and logging companies and big corporations. You hate snowmoblies and jet skis. You hate malls and fashions and cars.’
‘You’re still on my case because I won’t buy a Jeep?’ I said, harking back to another old argument.
‘Forget Jeeps. You can look at any car and all you think is pollution, traffic, roadside crap. You say fast food’s poisoning our bodies and TV’s poisoning our minds. You think the Internet is just another scam for selling stuff. You think business is a conspiracy to rape the earth.’
‘None of that bothers you?’
‘Of course it does. But that’s the world. That’s where we’ve got to live. It not going to go away because you don’t approve. What’s the good of spitting on it?’
‘I don’t spit on it. I grieve over it.’
He was still for a moment, then resumed quietly. ‘What’s the good of grieving if you can’t change anything?’
‘Who says you can’t change anything?’
‘You do. Maybe not with your mouth, but with your eyes.’ Jesse rubbed his own eyes, and the words came out muffled through his cupped hands. ‘Your view of things is totally dark. It bums me out. You may feel the whole planet’s dying and people are to blame and nothing can be done about it. There’s no room for hope. Maybe you can get by without hope, but I can’t. I’ve got a lot of living still to do. I have to believe there’s a way we can get out of this mess. Otherwise what’s the point? Why study, why work—why do anything if it’s all going to hell?’
That sounded unfair to me, a caricature of my views, and I thought of many sharp replies; yet there was too much truth and too much hurt in what he said for me to fire back an answer. Had I really deprived my son of hope? Was this the deeper grievance—that I had passed on to him, so young, my anguish over the world? Was this what lurked between us, driving us apart, the demon called despair?”
The changing relationship with his son Jesse is the catalyst for changes within the father; deep changes as the elder reorients himself to the hope no human being can live without. The father and the son are both right; but what are we going to do about it? Our world cannot survive for long without the song of hope stirring in someone.
As a boy growing up, I remember how the secondhand stories of my own father affected me—stories about how people survived in the very difficult times before our own. My father was a veteran of World War II, a survivor of the attack on Pearl Harbor, December 7th, 1941, as a sailor in the navy. He saw the first Japanese zero airplanes fly into Pearl Harbor, and, like many others, he initially thought they were our own airplanes (they had to be)—until he was being strafed by gunfire himself. The worst my father got was a scraped knee, but he watched many men lose their lives around him, and it affected him deeply. He was forever changed.
Like many veterans, my father was mostly quiet about his experience of war, sometimes completely silent, shut like a steel trap. I never heard the stories all at once. They came out indirectly, at odd angles of conversation, in the unexpected moments between a father and son, the surprising, and often elusive, shape of hope between generations. Sometimes I could coax the stories out, and I could feel their power in what he said, and what he didn’t say.
My favorite story of my father’s—it’s really no more than an image—involves President Franklin Roosevelt. My father worked in naval intelligence, under Admiral Chester Nimitz, the Chief of Naval Operations. On an unforgettable occasion, President Roosevelt flew to Hawaii to meet with Admiral Nimitz, and my father was able to meet the President of the United States, at a great moment in human history. Yes, Roosevelt was like a god in my family--but not the kind of god anyone expected.
At this time in the early 1940s, most buildings were not accessible to those with disabilities. The great secret, a secret guarded by the White House and protected by the media was that the president was a disabled man, from polio at the age of 39. He never walked again, but this was not acknowledged publicly during his lifetime. The most powerful man in the world was fighting against Tojo, Mussolini, and Hitler from a wheelchair. Not only that, his wheelchair couldn’t negotiate the naval headquarters at Pearl Harbor, and some of the planning for the war in the Pacific took place on ships in the harbor as well. How did the President of the
get around the naval base? A large marine, just a teenager like you, would pick him up and carry him piggy back from one place to another. What a sight for my father to witness. United States
How can you see that and not be changed in how you see the world?
God is still with us, even in the darkest moments, carrying us with the tender and strong hands of human hope, picking us up as we dig deep. God is with us now, in our day, and even to the end of the ages. God is with us in how we carry each other during tough times. My father witnessed the fear and destruction of December 7th, 1941. He saw the war from beginning to end. Yet it increased his faith. As a matter of fact, he had no faith—not really—before the war. He came to believe in God, but not a god who fixes our problems, who stops our wars by magic, or one who heals our planet by waving a wand. This is a God who stands with us as we face our problems together. Our God doesn’t change the world for us. We have to stand on our feet, sometimes with help from each other. God changes the world by changing our hearts. We change the world by reaching out to our neighbors in need. That’s how it works.
Mohatma Ghandi once said these words to those who hungered for change in the last century: “Be the change you want to see in the world.” Can the students of this school, especially the graduating seniors, change the world? The better, more intimate question comes instead for all of us today: Can one person have a change of heart? A change in one’s whole way of thinking and feeling and being in the world. The answer is yes; a glorious affirmation of all that is still good in us, still digging deep, even in adversity and sorrow. Be the change that you want to see in the world. Be the change that you want to see in this community.
I will close this morning with a simple poem by the playwright Jose Rivera. The poem is an odd one, as poems go; it’s just a list of the first times that you do something: your first times that you remember at the end of the year. This is the first time the class of 2012 has graduated from Kent, or the juniors to experience Tapping and Rock Day tomorrow and Tuesday. These first times could be ordinary events that you rush past on the way to…where are we going anyway? Kids want to grow up and be adults, and adults long for their lost youth. We envy you, and you envy us. It’s crazy the way we are. I think there is another way: to be completely awake in the moment, especially in our golden goodbyes this year. Then this poem, this list of firsts, becomes your own witness to the beauty and wonder of your life, and the deep and abiding love of the Creator God, which is there for those who are diggers for hope.
From Jose Rivera:
The first time a child trusts you to carry them to the next room.
The first time you drive from Westfield, Massachusetts, to San Diego, with someone you’re in love with.
The first time you watch birth.
The first lines of Paradise Lost.
The first time you make a decisive three point shot in a game that really counts.
The first time you get the dog to go to the bathroom outside.
The first time you can read “I love you” in a lover’s eyes.
The first family reunion without homicidal fantasies.
The first love letter.
The first serious talk about love with your child.
The first epiphany.
The first time you hear Lorca in Spanish.
The first real friendship with a person of another race.
The first gray hair.
The first time you see Picasso’s Guernica.
The first time you visit your birthplace.
The first time you hear Lightning Hopkins.
The first visible comet.
The first time you feel attractive and someone calls you “angel.”
The first experience with something remotely like a god.
The first recovery after a serious illness.
The first time therapy makes sense.
The first birthday of your first born.
The first time you can’t walk and your lover carries you to the next room.
The first foul ball you catch in Fenway Park.
The first time you stand alone and you’re scared to death and you don’t change your position.
The first time you’re convinced of your mortality and you laugh.
The first sunrise after the first death of a parent.
The first time you forgive the unforgivable.
The first time you see the Earth from space.
The first time it is truly obvious that it was better that you had lived, at this time, in this world.
The first time you decide every moment of your life should be a work of art.
The first time you die and you breathe again and you speak to the living.
The first time you realize that it all just might have been okay.