James Gertmenian April 29, 2018
Scripture Psalm 19
Plymouth friends! It’s so good to see you all again . . . and some new faces, as well! It’s been just three weeks since Sam, my wife, was with you all here in worship and then reading her poetry at a Literary Witnesses event. She told me that you embraced her warmly, and I heard from some of you that she shared, as she always does, some beautiful and fearsome poetry. Following her into this pulpit, I’m put in mind of John Kennedy’s comment when he spoke at a press conference in Paris in 1961. “I do not think it altogether inappropriate to introduce myself to this audience,” the President said. “I am the man who accompanied Jacqueline Kennedy to Paris.” Well, I’m the man who originally introduced Sam King to Plymouth. And you’re welcome! For me, it’s truly a privilege to stand here again. I’m sure you know that this place, this congregation and its story, this pulpit, mean a great deal to me. I treasured the Sunday mornings we shared here, and I treasure, too, the pungent and almost always gentle instruction I received from you over the years. Just now, I want to thank Paula for the hospitality of her invitation, and I join you in gratitude for the leadership she is providing during this transitional time. I was also glad to hear Brian Siska speak for the Legacy Committee earlier, and I simply want to add my affirmation to his words about the importance of the Flame Society, ensuring Plymouth’s strength and presence in the community for years to come. To plant the seeds of a tree in whose shade you do not expect to sit is, as our Jewish friends would say, a great mitzvah. So, if you have already written Plymouth into your estate plans, then bless you. And if you haven’t done it yet, particularly if you think that only people with a lot of money do such things, then I encourage you to join others like Sam and me who have made more modest commitments in the belief that together—and only together—can we ensure the long-term future of this church that we love . . . and that has loved us in return. Let me remind you, too, that that love—the tie that binds, the enfolding power of community—is as great a gift as God gives. It isn’t always easy—life together in all of its vicissitudes—because community is always about tussling as much as it is about togetherness, but it is a blessing that is to be honored and guarded and prized. Give thanks for its presence here at Plymouth.
Now. There is so much that I have been aching to talk with you about over these past three years! I’ve been saving it all up! So, what are you doing for the rest of the afternoon? No, seriously, we have . . . what? . . . 15 minutes? 20? I guess we should acknowledge a kind of tender awkwardness about this situation. It feels to me that we’re like old friends who have long since gone their separate ways but who have run into one another, quite by accident, at some far-flung railway station. There’s an initial moment of surprise, of recognition. Little bursts of memory. As throngs of travelers jostle around us, we embrace, as we had so many times before . . . but somehow it is not quite the same. There’s a pause—a brief, artless silence while we wonder what to do with this little gift . . . this serendipitous meeting. We sit down on a bench. In a few minutes our trains will leave for their different destinations. Our lives will separate again. But for now we’re here. What do we say in this little interstice of time? What should we say?
At any rate, here is our text for today, from the 19th Psalm:
The heavens are telling the glory of God;
and the firmament proclaims his handiwork.
Day to day pours forth speech,
and night to night declares knowledge.
There is no speech, nor are there words;
their voice is not heard;
yet their voice goes out through all the earth,
and their words to the end of the world.
And a brief, familiar prayer, also from the 19th Psalm:
Let the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts together be ever acceptable in your sight, O God, our Rock, our Redeemer and Friend. Amen.
* * *
So, from the panoply of topics we might talk about today, catching up with one another after three years, the most obvious might be the condition of our sad, benighted nation. You hardly need the recitation: a hundred and forty million people living in poverty or in near-poverty. The deepening coarseness of our national dialogue, if you can even call it dialogue. The pathetic strut of our military pretensions. The officially sanctioned abandonment of our care for the earth. The Orwellian disregard for standards of truth. The cold contempt for our beloved immigrants. The dogged effort to undercut health care for poor. The continuing scandal of homelessness. In this place, among you, one hardly needs to make the argument that these are all legitimate and urgent concerns for the church, for this church. Plymouth has always, from its earliest days, been an activist congregation, finding religion’s deepest fulfillment in concrete works of compassion, in ameliorating social ills, in advancing social causes, in efforts to make the world more just, particularly for those who suffer. Abolitionism, for Heaven’s sake, was Plymouth’s earliest creed, then temperance, then care for Scandinavian immigrants, then the welfare of children, then civil rights, then the empowerment of women, then (first quietly, and later loudly) advocacy for LGBTQ people, then creating housing for the homeless, and so on. I know that you’ve been doing anti-racism work lately and having conversations about gun violence. Wonderful! Both long overdue. And this week you’ll break ground at Great River Landing, another brave project of Housing 150 and Beacon. Incredible! Habitat, Third Sunday Meals, Whittier School, Lydia’s Closet, Families Moving Forward. No, nobody needs to convince Plymouth of the truth of that oft-repeated phrase from the Letter of James: “Faith apart from works is dead.” Plymouth’s faith, never content with creeds and ceremonies, has always been made manifest in action for the common good. You’re doing the work. You always have.
And, as you might expect, I’m with you there. Since moving to Maine, I’ve been volunteering at Preble Street, a nonprofit in Portland that works with people experiencing hunger, homelessness and poverty. I’m helping them organize congregations to do advocacy on public policy at the State Legislature. Then, continuing some work that we were doing here at Plymouth, now under the auspices of Auburn Theological Seminary and the BTS Center, I’ve been helping to bring together young, progressive, activist faith leaders from around the country. In this new iteration, the groups include equal numbers of Muslims, Jews and Christians. Oh, I wish you could hear the conversations; they’d lift your hope! Our first conference was held in New York in October, and we have three more scheduled—in the West, upper Midwest and the South—over the next 18 months. So, there’s that. Then you may have heard that in December, along with eight other clergy, I was arrested at Senator Susan Collins’s office, protesting her support for the tax bill that, having passed, is poised to cause a massive redistribution of wealth from the poor to the rich (Robin Hood stood on his head)—a shift that will drastically weaken our country in the long run by exacerbating income inequality. As my colleagues and I were being handcuffed, we had just read from the 10th chapter of Isaiah, a passage that should have resounded in the halls of Congress on the day they passed that bill:
Woe to you who make iniquitous decrees,
[you]who write oppressive statutes,
to turn aside the needy from justice
and to rob the poor of my people of their right. . . .
And now I’m involved with Maine’s participation in the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival, led by Dr. William Barber, who spoke from this pulpit in 2016. It’s a resurrection of the campaign that Dr. King was working on in 1968 when he was killed. As Rev. Barber says, “We’re picking up the baton from the bloody ground where Dr. King laid it down.”
So, these are the things we might most easily and most naturally talk about in our brief railway station encounter. Activists like to talk about action. Doers like to talk about what they’ve done. Workers like to talk about their work. You and I live by these words: “Faith apart from works is dead.”
But suppose there’s a bit more time before our trains are called and we have to part again. You know how it is with a friend you haven’t seen in a while. You share your news; she shares hers. That’s the easy part. Then there’s a point in the conversation when you have to decide: Is that it? Are we going to leave it on that level? Or are we going to go a little deeper? The time is short. You won’t be seeing one another again soon. Well, in these next few minutes, I wonder whether you and I might go a little deeper.
So, let me tell you what’s really on my mind these days when I think about these works of social justice that we’re all engaged in . . . works that I firmly believe our faith requires of us. I’m coming to see them in a new light. No lessening of conviction, to be sure. But there are questions. Persistent ones. They surface, like air from a long-submerged and nearly forgotten being breathing deep in my soul. Maybe you recognize them. They start like this: “With all this work, are we really making any headway?” I hope so. On many days I believe so. But is it fair to say that on other days, I wonder about it? Is it fair to say that on some days it feels as though we are trying to sweep back an oncoming tide of suffering with a kitchen broom of good intentions? I know a lot of people working on behalf of the poor who feel as though they are absolutely swimming upstream against a raging torrent of bad policy, bad politics and bad news these days. Are we making any headway? Will we ever? And what could Jesus have possibly meant when he said, “The poor you will always have with you”? Then another question, fast on the heels of the first, about any particular project or cause: “Is the work we’re doing the right work, and are we doing it in the right way?”
When we were arrested in Sen. Collins’s office, I was surely committed to our cause, but I also knew that there were other possible strategies for influencing the senator besides civil disobedience, and I also knew that there were other legitimate opinions on the issue, so there was a wrestling inside. I know that there are people who are so clear in their minds about their work that they never doubt whether they’re on the right track. God bless them. But that isn’t me. Then, of course, there’s always the question of motive. “Wait. Am I really doing this for a higher purpose, or is there some kind of good-guy self-aggrandizement going on? Am I doing this out of love, or is there some old liberal guilt pushing me?” At this point, I hear the voice that says, “Oh, for heaven’s sake, Jim, stop dithering and analyzing and taking yourself so seriously, and just do what has to be done!” I get that, and more often than not, I do just dig back into the tasks at hand. But the questions won’t stop. They get deeper, and broader, and harder. I see the prophets’ vision—a world at peace, a world of plenty for all, lions lying down with lambs, swords into plowshares, justice running down like waters—and, God help me, I think: “Really? Is that really possible, or is it just an illusion, a pipe dream, and the world is headed in some other dystopian direction?” I mean, if we’re being honest here, in this attenuated little conversation, I want you to know that it doesn’t seem so simple to me. And from deeper still, from the absolute depths of human consciousness, is the ultimate question, the question about the mystery of suffering, particularly that suffering that rises from human cruelty, neglect, greed and aggression: Why, O God?
Mind you, I do not mean to dampen the spirit of social justice activism in saying these things . . . but only to admit the reality of doubt, to salt our activism with honest questions and to anchor our activism in something deeper than the latest politics, the newest progressive cause. What I’m saying here is—and I feel some urgency about saying it because our time is drawing short—what I’m saying is that I’m not at all convinced that either we or the world can be saved by our good works. It doesn’t matter how hard we try, how dedicated we are. If the basis of our hope is the accumulation of all of our good deeds, laid against one another, I just wonder whether that foundation can hold. Those works are absolutely necessary; as I’ve said, the life of faith demands them of us. But they are not everything. They will never be quite enough on their own. “Deep calls to deep,” the Psalmist declares, and if our activism is to be meaningful and our hope is to be real, it must rise out of eternal realities and be sustained by faith, not wishful optimism about human progress and a naïve confidence in our own powers.
True and abiding hope rises not from what we do but from the deep realities of the universe, from its very structure, which is the heart of God. Hope is something coded in the essence of what the universe is, a universe that is at one time wholly physical and wholly spiritual, much in the way traditional Christian theology has spoken of Jesus as being wholly God and wholly human. Hope cannot be sought in the next election cycle (just wait until the midterms!), nor in the next technology (we’ll feed the world with algae!), nor in the next philosophical wave, however beguiling. As Václav Havel said, “Hope is a condition of your soul, not a response to the circumstances in which you find yourself.” Hope must, if it is to be real, be made of the same fire as the fire of the Big Bang, an elemental, ineluctable, ontological tendency of the universe toward creativity, unity, wholeness and peace. It is what Dr. King meant when he said, “The moral arc of history is long, but it bends toward justice.” The question is: “If it does bend toward justice, who does the bending?” Do we do it by virtue of our good works? Or does it come about from the natural inclination of the Universe, the mind of God? Or—and here is the third possibility, the deep mystery, the unfathomable—does the promised world come about from the ineffable combination of the two: the erotic marriage of human will and divine intention? That’s what I am coming to believe and what I find in my reading of Biblical truth.
Here’s the wonderful twist. When we stop laying all of our hope on our own good works but put it on God’s essential goodness, then, almost miraculously, we are released to work with greater abandon and deeper purpose. The saints are always those who rely not on their own strength, or will, or skill, but on the power of God working through them. They look into the beating heart of the universe and draw strength from it, and that strength gives them hope, and they become part of that heart, part of God.
Perhaps no passage of scripture so evokes this hope as the 19th Psalm: “The heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament proclaims God’s handiwork.” Too often this Psalm and passages like it are thought to be nothing more than hymns about how beautiful the natural world is. Or perhaps as lyrical arguments for “intelligent design.” But they are much more than those. They are an affirmation about the essential nature of things, a proclamation that there is order and purpose in the universe, and that even through the vicissitudes of human brokenness and sin, even through the kinds of systemic evil and cruelty that can infect human governments and human affairs, that order and that purpose are inexorable, inevitable. To be an activist, then, is not so much to think that we are moving the world in the right direction as it is to move ourselves to be aligned and in harmony with the direction for which the world is destined. We cannot save the world. Not by all of the good works in human history. But we can, by God’s grace, through our activism, participate in the world’s salvation. “The heavens proclaim the glory of God,” and we, by our works, may add our voices to that proclamation.
I don’t know of a better rendering of the ideas of the 19th Psalm than the wonderful hymn “The Spacious Firmament on High,” written 300 years ago by the English essayist Joseph Addison. And there is no more stirring setting of the hymn than the tune Carelle, composed by Ian Kellam, of blessed memory, and named for our dear Carolyn Brunelle. I asked Philip if we could sing it as our closing hymn today. It is a gift for all of us who are seeking hope in these troubled times, who want encouragement for living out our faith in good works, and who are listening, as deep calls to deep, for intimations of the Eternal.
Our trains are leaving soon. I must go one way, and you another. Thank you for this time. Bless me, I pray, on my journey, as I surely bless you on yours.
The Spacious Firmament on High
The spacious firmament on high,
with all the blue ethereal sky,
and spangled heavens, a shining frame,
their great Original proclaim.
The unwearied sun from day to day
does his Creator’s power display,
and publishes to every land
the work of an almighty hand.
Soon as the evening shades prevail
the moon takes up the wondrous tale,
and nightly to the listening earth
repeats the story of her birth;
whilst all the stars that round her burn,
and all the planets in their turn,
confirm the tidings, as they roll,
and spread the truth from pole to pole.
What though in solemn silence all
move round the dark terrestrial ball;
what though nor real voice nor sound
amid their radiant orbs be found;
in reason’s ear they all rejoice,
and utter forth a glorious voice,
forever singing as they shine,
‘The hand that made us is divine.’