Sunday, May 30, 2010

The long view

Proverbs 8: 1-4, 22-31; Romans 5: 1-5
******** United Church of Christ
May 30, 2010 – Trinity Sunday

When I was a kid, my friends and I used to play a game called “Mother May I?” Actually, it was a frustrating, control-freakish way of playing tag. The one who was ‘it’ got to stand still and decide how close folks could get. Players would ask something like “Mother, may I take 3 or 5 giant steps or baby steps forward?” Whoever was ‘Mother’ didn’t always let you move forward. Sometimes she (or he) would say “No, take 2 or 3 or 4 giant steps back.” If you got caught sneaking up from behind without ‘Mother’s’ permission, you had to take some really big giant steps backward, sometimes going all the way back to the beginning.

Sometimes our relationship with God can feel like that. We feel like we’re getting close to understanding, to having a grip on reality, to knowing how to move through our lives and then life sends us back a few giant steps, sometimes all the way back to where we started. Or more often than not, it’s our own choices and decisions that can send us into a spiritual tailspin.

When we hear Wisdom speak in Proverbs, she sounds like she wants us to come closer, to listen, to heed her call. Like the mother in “Mother May I?” she stands in one place while we are to draw ever nearer. But in order that we may understand her wise words and respect her place in the created order that we may gain wisdom about our place, she sends us back to the very beginning.

Before there was an earth or waters or mountains, Wisdom was there by God’s side. Wisdom was the first of God’s creative acts, and the first thing God created was light. Author Terry Pratchett says this about light: “Light thinks it travels faster than anything, but it is wrong. No matter how fast light travels, it finds the darkness has always got there first, and is waiting for it.” God gave us light first, because the darkness is always there first, waiting for us. God gave us wisdom, light in our darkness, because more often than not, foolishness and pride and self-absorption come before wise thinking.

We human beings tend to take a very short view of things, perhaps because, as the psalmist writes, “The days of our life are seventy years, or perhaps eighty, if we are strong; even then their span is only toil and trouble; they are soon gone, and we fly away.” We don’t know how long any of us has and so we struggle and do battle and love and wonder each day that we have. And we procrastinate and escape and indulge and scrape by, hoping for another day.

Ecclesiastes writes “[God] has put a sense of past and future into their minds, yet they cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end. I know that there is nothing better for them than to be happy and enjoy themselves as long as they live; moreover, it is God’s gift that all should eat and drink and take pleasure in all their toil.” But we have difficulty taking pleasure in all our toil because many days that’s exactly what it is—toil, hard work, the scut of life. Often we can feel a void, an emptiness growing inside us, and that line about suffering and endurance in Romans can sound like a hill of beans.

It’s not long after that that we can find ourselves reaching for something we think we deserve; maybe we’ve talked ourselves into thinking we really need it, that we can’t live without it. And I’m not just talking about individual lives but about communities, states, nations, human society. As a human race we know of that collective void within us, that comes from millennia of what can feel like busywork but is often looked at as progress.

But what kind of progress and at what cost? War is more efficient but also more violent, it lasts longer and it costs more, a lot more. We can get somewhere faster with a car, but we usually drive alone, all of us separated by what we think are our individual destinies. We have vast amounts of energy and technology at our fingertips that frees us from physical scut work so we can do what? How many of us fill our free time with music and art and poetry and good home-cooked wholesome food and walks in the woods and on the beach with people we love and serving others and ensuring that generations after us will be able to enjoy what we enjoy? Instead we witness more and more the arts and other special programs eliminated from education budgets, those things that make us more human, more in the image of God. More often than not, even as nations the human race reaches for things it thinks it deserves, persuaded that it even needs, rather than face the void, the emptiness within.

The oil spill tragedy on the Gulf coast is a prime example of our hubris. In our demand for cheap available oil, in a corporation’s desire for ever bigger profits, we have reaped these terrible results that will reach generations beyond us. In Newsweek magazine, in reference to two earlier BP massive oil leaks in Alaska, an EPA agent was quoted saying “There was a corporate philosophy that it was cheaper to operate to failure and then deal with the problem later than do preventive maintenance.” Newsweek further cites that the global demand for oil is so insatiable that a “best-case scenario” leak of 450,000 barrels would amount to only 7 ½ minutes of worldwide daily consumption!

French mystic and activist Simone Weil wrote that “all sins are attempts to fill voids”. All sins are our inability to live with the emptiness, the longing for something more that seems to come with being human. When Paul was writing about suffering and endurance it was only about 25 years or so after Jesus was crucified—certainly still within the lifetime of those who knew Jesus in the flesh. The hope of Jesus returning soon was still alive. When the early community of faith of John’s gospel heard the words “God will send the Advocate, the Comforter, to be with you forever” it had been at least 70 years since the time of Jesus. They began to see that the Holy Spirit was sent not only to create communities of faith but to sustain them and to help keep in focus the long view of God.

You’re somewhere in the middle of this time of transition, which sometimes can feel like the beginning, as I’m sure the pastoral search committee can tell you. I know of some other churches that went through transitions and took the short view of things and shortchanged themselves of time to grieve, some much-needed introspection, and the time it takes to look for the right person. I know when I was single I kissed a lot of frogs before I found my prince and I was just about ready to give in when David showed up.

We know the short view is easier, and in the end we know we’ll pay for it dearly. The long view is hard for a reason. The long view produces endurance, which produces character, which produces hope—hope that does not disappoint us. Why? Because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us. Eugene Peterson in his paraphrase The Message puts it this way:
“We continue to shout our praise even when we're hemmed in with troubles, because we know how troubles can develop passionate patience in us, and how that patience in turn forges the tempered steel of virtue, keeping us alert for whatever God will do next. In alert expectancy such as this, we're never left feeling shortchanged. Quite the contrary—we can't round up enough containers to hold everything God generously pours into our lives through the Holy Spirit!”

When we sit with that void, that emptiness that comes with waiting, when we allow it to become passionate patience that turns into the steel of virtue, God does not leave us to our emptiness. Rather, we are filled with the Holy Spirit, with wisdom, with light to overflowing. We spill over with compassion and justice rather than oil; we’re bursting with love rather than reaching and grabbing for that which does not satisfy but only leaves us even emptier.

Mother Wisdom, Holy Spirit, the Advocate and Comforter wants us to come close and pay attention but by way of the long view. She is ready to pour out what we need into our emptiness, into our waiting but we too must be ready. We must be ready with a hope that is born out of an integrity that comes from the patience known only in our emptiness.

What is the emptiness within you, that you witness around you, that you try to fill, both as an individual and as a church? What can you go without or use less of? What gives you hope? What are some of the Holy Spirit moments you have witnessed in this community of faith and in your own spiritual life? What is God pouring into your life together right now, this moment?

In all things be willing to take the long view, the Holy Spirit-Wisdom outlook, to suffer the emptiness so that hope may have a long, fulfilled life. Amen.

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