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Jeremiah is grieving
and Jesus is taking no prisoners.
And I am not preaching on either of them.
It is not just because I am a little weary
of the hard work
involved in finding
where twenty-five hundred year old texts
intersect with twenty-first century lives,
but because Wendell Berry
has evoked in me a strange murmuring.
Perhaps it is anticipating the coolness
of autumn’s breath
and the whisperings
of the change of seasons?
But whatever it is,
I invite us to get quieter,
”When despair grows in us” —
let’s be clear:
even the most optimistic among us,
myself one of them,
will find our gaze pulled
into a stare
like a becalmed sail
in a pool of despondence.
“…and when we wake in the middle of the night
at the least sound
in fear of what our lives and
our children’s lives may be” —
because the truth is,
the door in front of us
upon which our hand is turning the knob,
is a door to the unknown.
The shear mystery
of tomorrow — for ourselves
but even more so for our children
and grandchildren —
can feel unnerving,
“…I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water,
and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water…” —
because for reasons still unclear,
water is soothing,
Even when the waves rise up
from the fierceness of wind
and the darkness below
rumbles shear and uncontrolled power,
we continue to find stillness
in its presence.
Azure blue Lake Ontario
a hop, skip, and jump due north;
the St. Lawrence Seaway
just a morning’s stretch northeast;
and everywhere we step
in our own backyards
here in the Finger Lakes,
a lake or waterfall or gorge
with a laughing stream.
the still presence of water.
“…And we feel above us the day-blind stars
waiting for their light. For a time
we rest in the grace of the world, and are free.” —
the day-blind stars,
light hidden by light,
the presence of which we know
even as they go unseen.
The sky above in its fullness
as both light and dark layer one another,
overpowers us with our smallness
and in that moment of utter insignificance
we are free.
(Modified: “The peace of wild things” Wendell Berry)
You all know by now,
that I walk my dog down at the lake
And once she is done doing her business —
which, I’m not sure why we call it “business” —
we sit together on a bench.
I sit to contemplate
she sits to get her belly rubbed.
We do it often even in the rain,
and frequently in the snow
as well as gorgeous mornings
when the sun pours down.
Our lake is big by many standards
but taking a step back,
it is still nestled as if in cupped hands,
by the rise of small hills,
wooded land, and a vineyard or two.
The lake changes color with the light,
and whether the sandy bottom
is brushed smooth by the waves
from swallowing a season of weeds,
branches, and algae.
The sun can be reflected
back to itself as if the water were glass
or ripple like diamonds
on choppy waves.
Or it can be dark steel
with white teeth.
One morning this past summer
I took my three and half year old grandson,
Declan, fishing at the small docks
across from the wine ice cream place.
It had been hot, in the nineties for several days,
and I doubted we would catch anything.
But I had five different snacks with me,
to doll out every so often
just to keep his attention.
One of them was organic gummy worms.
We joked that we were eating
more worms than the fish were.
Suddenly, about twenty or thirty feet away,
the miraculous body of a fish
separated the still water
as it jumped fully into the air
and glimmered in the sun.
It leaped up through gravity
the same way it slipped
and wiggled down through water.
Declan was eating a handful of colored
goldfish crackers —
yes, I had a snack theme going.
I don’t think Declan noticed the fish
or would even have been that interested
unless it had been pulling the line
from beneath the water.
I however, turned the moment in my mind
into a bulging metaphor.
It is a metaphor I have leaned one
more than once
but I will lean on it again
because it is one of the most
clear and present truths I know.
It is a spiritual truth,
a holy wisdom.
“The mirrored glass on the surface of the lake
is like a human face,”
I thought to myself,
“concealing an entire civilization.”
I began to think through the names
of lake citizens
I knew anything about:
fish, water bugs,
turtles, snakes, tadpoles,
Then my thoughts hovered over
the universe of even smaller things
I know almost nothing about:
and all the invisible
that make and disturb
the muck down below.
I wanted to tell Declan
about what I was thinking, about
how there is a universe of life
we cannot see
that lies below the surface.
I wanted to tell him
about how the lake is an ecosystem
not just the water he sees,
and that its health
is wrapped up in a vast matrix
of relationships beyond
the obvious ones we see
on the surface.
I wanted to tell him
that such an ecosystem
is my best metaphor
and that in that very moment,
blue and gold and red and green
in his tiny hand,
he was part of it, too.
A tiny part of the vast, holy, ecosystem
are the fruit of contemplation.
It is, for me anyway,
the voice that speaks
when we enter into the peace
of wild things.
But as much as I enjoy it,
and even though it is a nearly every day
exercise for me on my bench with Rabia
I think we really do need to give ourselves
to lower ourselves down
into the presence of still water…
where we can rest
in the grace of the world.
I think we need to say out loud
that contemplation is valuable,
that it is more than a luxury,
that it life-giving even.
will begin to change soon,
and indeed some leaves
are making ready
to fall already.
The water in the lake is in motion
turning itself over
from below to above,
and we are entering
a season ripe for contemplation.
So that is my simple invitation today —
to give yourself time
and the will
It need not be on nature.
It could be a verse,
a prayer even.
But give yourself the time
and the opportunity
and the will
I know this is not the red meat
I often bite off from readings
like the ones from Luke and Jeremiah today.
But here is a little secret
about that parable from Luke.
It is better approached
as Zen koan
than a fable with a moral.
A Koan, remember,
is a tool in some Buddhist traditions,
employed by the master
for the teaching of a disciple.
It is a simile, a parable, or a metaphor
so extremely paradoxical
and even non-rational
that it seems like nonsense.
So the student is left to contemplate
upon the meaning of the koan,
or more aptly,
upon what the non-answer
of the nonsense might be.
The most famous Koan,
a cliche these days,
is attributed to a 17th century Japanese master
who asked the question:
“Two hands clap and there is a sound;
what is the sound of one hand?”
Or this one.
A disciple once asked Master Yun-Men,
“If not even one thought has arisen in the mind;
is there still a sin?”
Yun-Men answered: “Mount Sumeru!”
I am not saying
a first century illiterate Galilean peasant
knew anything about Buddhist koans,
but whatever that original story was,
the one we heard in Luke today,
it feels like a nonsensical koan.
If you want to know how to make sense
out of Luke’s version of Jesus’ story,
I suggest you take it home
and cogitate on it.
Chew on it.
Put it on the counter in the kitchen
and come back to it again and again.
Don’t rest easy
with any answer you come up with,
upon the disreputable manager
and how we are to be like him or her.
In other words, practice contemplation.
It is an important spiritual tool
that all of us could develop and employ
more than we do.
Contemplation is the counter practice
to juggling multiple tasks
while running in place.
In other words, it is the perfect
antidote to multi-tasking
which can strip bare
our creativity and peace.
is the act of concentration.
It requires us to focus
all of our immediate awareness
on one thing.
In particular, one spiritual thing.
And by spiritual I am speaking broadly,
as in a large needle-nosed fish
Rabia and I watched
dance above the water
for a split second
the morning I wrote this sermon.
That thing that we focus on,
the broadly-speaking spiritual thing,
could be a question
or an attribute of God
or the wood drake and great blue heron,
or the grace evoked by the presence of still water.
which is bringing oneself fully into the moment
with the thing being contemplated,
may in fact take place across time –
as we come back
to the same contemplation
day after day
or month after month
or year after year.
But I want to be clear
that simple contemplation
upon a spiritual question or attribute,
It will begin to corrode our
and our other answers
long before it ever supplies new ones.
What Wendell Berry proposes in his small poem
because true contemplation is subversive.
It troubles the waters of our soul.It stirs things up.
It moves the stagnant pond within the mind
and long-held beliefs and answers
A prolonged contemplation
will stir up the cloud of lazy answers
we have allowed to settle for years.
So as peaceful as it can feel in the moment,
contemplation troubles the waters of the soul
when we allow ourselves
to settle in deeply.
And even though we are practicing stillness
as we increase the concentration of our awareness,
the longer term effect
will be subversive.
So that’s it.
A simple exercise I commend to you.
Allow the sacred stories,
the contemporary poems,
the wood drake and the heron,
the presence of still water,
to penetrate our thoughts
as we concentrate our minds
upon the holy.