Sunday, October 13, 2013
Parenthood and God: The Gravity of Gratitude
Kent School, St. Joseph’s Chapel
Several years ago, a magazine called Yankee magazine ranked Kent, Connecticut, as the #1 place for autumn in New England. Of all the places to experience this golden season, this community came out on top. Now I had never heard of Yankee magazine, and I haven’t seen a copy of it since that fall when this small community in northwest Connecticut graced its cover. But the ranking did change us for a time. Busloads of tourists came to Kent. There were suddenly traffic problems down Route 7, both north and south. Local residents complained about the crowds who had read the magazine, but they did not complain about the business they generated. The irony of magazines—any magazine, that dying medium--trying to raise their own stature by ranking others has never been lost on me; U.S. News and World Report has made this an industry with their college rankings. But consider, for a moment, that Yankee magazine might have been right. It was hard to argue during this Parents’ Weekend. There was golden perfection all around us. Could it be possible that this river valley was the very best place to be?
Yes, it is a stretch, a potentially preposterous idea. But it is just the kind of spiritual stretch we need at the end of a busy but joyful Parents’ Weekend. It makes you want to slow down, to savor each moment unfolding in your life; to remember carefully the words exchanged between parent and child, teacher and family, before we rush off to the next chapter of our busy lives. These moments, if we look at them just right, might really be the best ones—as good as it gets, if we see them correctly, perhaps as God sees them, and us living them.
The gospel this morning is about the fullness of gratitude changing one life pretty significantly. In the gospel from Luke, ten lepers are cleansed by Jesus. This is a big time miracle, healing on a wide scale. But only one of them praises God afterwards. Only one is filled with gratitude—an outsider, a Samaritan. Samaritans were cut off from the ritual observances of Jews in Jerusalem; they were not even allowed to enter the temple; you weren’t even supposed to talk to them in public. But the Samaritan is the one who praises God in a loud voice. Jesus observes: “’Were not ten made clean? But the other nine, where are they? Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?’” The extraordinary miracle is forgotten, or taken for granted, except by one person. So Jesus says to the Samaritan: “’Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.’”
Hundreds—even thousands of people—have come to Kent, Connecticut, this very weekend. But how many of them made it to chapel this morning? How many of them saw the turning, falling, golden leaves and praised God with a loud voice? Luke would also highlight the outcast behaving the best in his beloved parable of the Good Samaritan. In this gospel, the power of faith and the feeling of gratitude are deeply, powerfully related. They are two sides of the same coin. Luke portrays the outcast of the ten lepers as the one who is most grateful, and therefore most faithful, to God. What kind of outcast Samaritan do you have to be to see the miracle of our being with open eyes?
I will never forget the moment when my first daughter Beatrice was born, or the events of labor that led up to it. The details are indelible to me. We had an authoritative, very talkative nurse in the delivery room. And I still cherish the moment when my wife told her to shut up for a change—it would make things a whole lot easier. We all laughed, in the moments before birth, and she did shut up. But the experience of witnessing the miracle of the birth of your child changes you forever. More love is pulled out of you—literally, physically, spiritually, naturally—than you ever knew was inside of you. But every moment from that point on, you forget a little, you lose a little. You lose track of the golden lessons of how powerful the gift of life really is. Yet in moments at school for your child—at soccer games and musical performances—you remember snatches—you get glimpses of the miracle that you once possessed in completeness. With the faith and swelling gratitude that makes us well. Sadly, it often in loss and grief that we learn not to take any of what we have for granted. But we forget how to see with the eyes of faith, and how to live with a debt of gratitude to God: the origin of our being and also our ultimate destination.
As Parents’ Weekend approached this past week, I thought of how to reclaim this gratitude, the full memory of the miracle of life. Of the gift of parenthood and childhood that makes us, for some precious moments, glimpse the divine love that formed each of us in the womb. Full memory of the love around every life, a cloud of witnesses. The Church in its early formation called the recollection of this love anamnesis—the polar opposite of amnesia. Anamnesis was present for the early Church in the Eucharist that we celebrate this morning. Eucharist is a strange word, but it only means, simply, “thanksgiving.”
As I thought about how to recover this anamnesis as your preacher, I did the only reasonable thing: I went to the movies to escape the burden. Fortunately, my wife Amy and I did not go to see an ordinary Hollywood movie. We went to see a film that, even now after a few days, is hard to describe; it’s a movie called, simply, Gravity. The movie is not really about gravity because gravity is precisely what is missing for 99% of the film. The film is about two astronauts, Ryan and Matt, played wonderfully by Sandra Bullock and George Clooney, who lose their space shuttle and their fellow astronauts. They are the only survivors of a freak space emergency. I don’t want to give away any of the movie’s plot, but, in some ways, I’ve told you everything. The two astronauts have to survive in space together, and they don’t even particularly like each other at the beginning. The movie is shot in real time, and we don’t know anything about the characters except what we find about them during their conversations with each other.
Gravity is one of the most beautiful movies I have ever seen. The direction by Alfonso Cuaron is absolutely courageous. The eye candy of the space scenes is extraordinary, and yet every scene from space also reminds the viewer of the peril of these two individuals. The movie is quite frightening at times. Even with the technology that allows human beings to exist in space, the movie is a slow, meditative study of the ordinary things people do to stay alive, high above the nation states that don’t really have borders from space. They are far from the civilization that we often place in the role of God. What begins to rise above the scale of the planet, and the universe, and the improbability of their survival, is the spiritual power of human connectedness. It is simple and powerful, this human bonding that we do on this planet, and above it. George Clooney’s character is a bit of a clown—a chatterbox of stories that Sandra Bullock’s character Ryan doesn’t want to hear (just like our delivery nurse). Clooney’s Matt reminded me of Buzz Lightyear with his cheerful attention to space duty despite the extraordinary dangers all around them. Their bonding is profound, and yet simple and straightforward. Matt is able to draw forth the event that changed Ryan forever: the loss of her only child. The most profound loss that any human being can experience. Because it hits us at the deepest place of being human. We eventually find out the child’s name is Sarah. Matt handles the story gently, simply, lovingly, and the memory or presence of a child seems to guide them in their attempt to stay alive together.
Gravity is a profoundly theological movie, without trying to be. It is effortless, floating close to questions of God without ever naming that divine reality directly. Yet the movie is existentialist as well, harsh and bleak, out beyond the sheltering sky of our atmosphere. The movie provides a study of the human body in the act of survival—Sandra Bullock’s in particular. But there is nothing remotely gratuitous about it. Focusing on the biological needs of her body to survive in space, we remember the little things we all do every day to stay alive. You feel gratitude for the life we live on land. You want to kiss the ground we walk on. You feel thanksgiving for the air we breathe, the oxygen that enters our body and feeds every one of our cells to stay alive. Upon entering an air duct at a space station, after breathing carbon dioxide for several minutes, Sandra Bullock curls up in a fetal position, floating, like a child in her mother’s womb. You remember the love that planted us in the universe, each of us children of our universal mother and father.
As mentioned, Ryan and Matt are mismatched, an odd couple in space. They reminded me of the recent story of the fawn and the baby bobcat. These two sweet creatures survived the fires in Southern California. The fawn was three days old and the bobcat three weeks old. They both lost their parents, and yet they bonded immediately when they saw each other, snuggling together, becoming litter mates—becoming family, almost immediately. The pictures of them are unbelievable--inseparable together. Like the Samaritan, the outcast practices the greatest devotion, freshly remembering the gift of water, food, shelter, and the physical comfort of a fellow creature, snuggled up. These are the moments when you really do love your neighbor as yourself. Astronauts and animals remember what we have forgotten. The connectedness, the bonding that makes us human, is alive, but not awake; the deep gratitude that feeds our faith slips away. Maybe out in space it’s natural to remember, but even right now, in this beautiful chapel, we too are floating in space, if we could but remember the wonder and beauty and peril of our being alive. Perhaps it’s easier for the outcast bobcat and fawn to really love each other, like it was for the Samaritan who was healed by Jesus to remember God. And for our two astronauts just trying not to die today. There is one moment of the film Gravity that might be described as supernatural (don’t worry, I won’t give it away). But the movie subtly doesn’t name the miracle as God, though the intervention is certainly miraculous, connecting the living to the dead. Scientists and existentialists might explain it away—as a dream sequence, or a hallucination. But the person whose life is touched, in this case an astronaut in space, will never forget it. She will praise God with a loud voice because her faith has made her well.
There are a few moments still left of Parents’ Weekend and this Eucharist, the great thanksgiving, where all are welcome at God’s table: Embrace them and each other. The weekend isn’t over yet. Maybe there is one more sacred, ordinary meal before goodbyes. There is healing in these moments as they pass, and as they linger in our minds and memories. Take the time to be present to each other, with every breath you take; like astronauts without a ship, and small confused animals bonding without their parents. Yet all of us children of God. God loves each of you if you were the only person on the face of the earth, and floating in space as well. That is the gravity that binds us, one to another. When we know this presence and return love to it, the voice of Jesus can be heard in our time as well when we slow down, and give thanks to God, the Master of the Universe: You’re back on Planet Earth. Get up and go on your way. Your faith has made you well.