A Sermon by Rev. John Gibbons
With a Time for All Ages by Deb Weiner
Sunday, February 7, 2021
The First Parish in Bedford, Unitarian Universalist
“Things were done very literally. One thing they did at that church that I’ll never forget, was that they had a big ply-board thing, in the front of the church, full of light bulbs. This was at regular church. If you were present, you and your family, you’d go up and screw in your light bulb. And it would turn on. And over the top of the whole thing, it said, “Let Your Little Light Shine.” And if you weren’t there, it would be so obvious to everyone else in the congregation because your little light would not be shining.”
— Lee Smith, quoted in The Christ-Haunted Landscape:
Faith and Doubt in Southern Fiction, by Susan Ketchin
A Time for All Ages by Deb Weiner: “Where’s Waldo?”
When I was growing up there were those times when I would see something – maybe for the first time – that I just didn’t understand. And I wanted to get it, to have a way to describe it (maybe even talk to my parents about it) and…I just…didn’t know how to do that.
Now it is true that there are times, especially now (a LOT of them) when things happen and I just can’t even begin to describe them. That is the part where life feels like a dystopian drama and you may have had that feeling recently, too. But really I am thinking about those times when you might have ended up looking for the hidden meaning in something and you almost had to find a new way to talk about it, think about it. But not quite.
In practical terms I remember that my older daughter, Emily, had not seen a kitchen cabinet lazy-Susan storage unit before my husband Ben installed one in the house. And she called it a “Merriweather,” because she didn’t know the real name for it. For her, that made sense: it turned around and held things, and I suspect it made her kind of happy to see it.
We use metaphors to describe things that ordinary phrases can’t always get: “It’s raining cats and dogs,” for example. Or the Yiddish curse, that my father once uttered:
Vaksn zolt suvi a tsibile mint kop in d’rerd!
Literally: “May you grow like an onion, with your head in the ground.”
We hunt for meaning in what is right in front of us – and in what can be hidden from immediate view. Where’s Waldo?, we ask, when we see those illustrations that have become so famous.
Waldo’s there, and yet hiding from us, mixed in with the crowd. Or we struggle to identify another hidden meaning: what are those drawings of M.C. Escher about?
What is the message behind them and why do we keep staring at them?
We want to make sense of things, even though they may be a bit upside-down or backward or disguised. The next time someone tells you that it’s ‘raining cats and dogs,’ you will probably know what they mean. And there will probably be other things that happen in the world – as there has been so often over the last year or so – where we just can’t easily describe or even explain things. Beneath what we see, there are other things, and sometimes other things after that – which sometimes are experienced without words. It’s up to us to find the real meaning.
I have to tell you that I spend an awful lot of time just asking myself the question, “What in tarnation is going on here?” “Tarnation,” just for you word geeks, is an archaic version of “What the hell?” and I’m pretty sure you’ve been asking that or a similar question regularly.
For gosh sakes, what day is it? It’s Blursday! Like in the movie “Groundhog Day,” it’s Sonny and Cher chirping “I’ve got you babe” day after day after day after day.
Like in “Where’s Waldo” or that Escher print, we struggle to see WHAT IS GOING ON HERE? And sometimes we make stuff up, like Deb’s daughter Emily calling a Lazy Susan a merriweather. That makes as much sense to me as a Lazy Susan!
None of us sees reality with perfect clarity. St. Exupery once said, “We live not by things but by the meanings of things.” Unlike the folks in that church where they screwed their light bulbs into a board up front so that their little lights might shine, we tend not to take things quite so literally.
Things do not have intrinsic meaning but human beings impart meaning to things. That’s what religion is all about: we are the meaning-makers.
One of the most important tools for making meaning is the metaphor. There is linguistic research that says that people use a metaphor every 10 to 25 words! Have you ever devoured a book? Or tried to digest raw facts or wrap your head around something? Regularly in sermons, I regurgitate other people’s ideas, and some of those ideas – you know – are half-baked!
We spend and waste time. And, when talking about money, we dip into savings, sponge off friends, skim a bit off the top. The job title “stockbroker” comes from the French word brocheur, the tavern worker who taps beer kegs to get the liquidity flowing. I know you were just dying to know this!
Metaphors remind us that we don’t see everything clearly and we don’t even have all the words to describe what we do see. Columnist David Brooks observes that, from time to time, “it’s good to pause to appreciate how flexible and tenuous our grip on reality actually is.”
You’ve probably noticed that the theme of “imagination” has been a constant thread through our recent services and sermons. After all, what can we do but imagine – in dread or anticipation – what may become of us, and how we may want to – or fear – looking back upon this time of pandemic.
An environmental activist named Roy Scranton recently wrote a piece titled, “Let’s Say Goodbye to Normal” and writes, “As the pandemic has worn on, the desire to get back to normal has increased, and I worry that the hope for radical positive change has subsided. But we must not let it dissipate. We can’t afford to. Because we won’t see “normal” again in our lifetimes. Our parents and grandparents burned normal up in their American-built cars, with their American lifestyles, their American refrigerators and American dreams. And now China and India are doing it.” Scranton concludes by saying, “The next 20 years will be a period of deep uncertainty and tremendous risk, no matter what. We don’t get to choose what challenges we’ll face, but we do get to decide how we’ll face them. The first thing we need to do is let go of the idea that life will ever be normal again.” Scranton says, “I’ve called this ‘learning how to die.’”
Well, folks, shall I just quit there? Let’s all get out there and learn how to die!” Have a nice day!
OK, I’ll say a bit more: the purpose of this faith community, my friends, is not only that we may learn to die but that we may learn to be born again! You heard me right! We would be a born again church!
I’m sorry, friends, but I’m not finished dragging you through the mud, because we really do need to learn to die if we are to be born again. How’s that for the bad news and the good news?
This morning I want to share with you four metaphors for our times. Each is, well, difficult and challenging – and, well, what did you expect? This learning how to die stuff ain’t for the faint of heart. For the most part I’m going to share these stories without interpretation or commentary; only maybe a question or two.
And, at the outset I should also confess to you that I’m not always 100% clear on what’s a metaphor, or a simile, or an analogy or a parable but I am confident that the grammar police among you will no doubt have ample opportunity to correct me, ‘cause – well, you know, that’s what smartypants UU’s and white people like to do.
Here’s what I’m calling Metaphor #1; the metaphor of Uncle Toby; and actually I wrote and preached these words here in the year 1991:
“About a year ago,” I said, “there was a column in The New Yorker, written I think by the neurologist Oliver Sacks. A true story, it took place in England and began with a physician’s visit to a patient’s home. After tending to the patient, the physician noticed another man sitting in a corner chair, awake and breathing but languid, listless and seemingly dead-to-the-world. “Who is that?” he inquired. “Oh, that’s Uncle Toby,” was the response. “He’s been like that for 20 years.” His curiosity piqued, the doctor examined Uncle Toby and, after tests, concluded there was an under functioning of his endocrine system. The treatment was actually quite simple and with some hormone therapy, Uncle Toby awoke from torpor and came to life full of vigor. Everyone rejoiced at the miracle.
Quite soon thereafter, however, Uncle Toby developed a persistent cough. X-rays revealed a massive, malignant and virulent lung tumor. Within weeks after he had miraculously come back to life, Uncle Toby was dead. Perplexed and disturbed by this turn of events, the doctor reviewed the medical history, came across a 20-year-old X-ray of Uncle Toby’s lungs, and there discovered the tiniest of malignant spots. Held in suspendered animation for two decades, the tumor had not progressed. But the therapy which brought him to life also awakened the disease which would kill him.
The New Yorker columnist then used the story of Uncle Toby as a parable of developments in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe (at that time). A nation that had slumbered in repression had come to life, and who cannot rejoice in newfound freedom and democracy? But the same liberating force unleashed ancient feuds, smoldering hatreds and malignant nationalisms: Poles against Jews, Slavs against Croatians, Bulgarians against Turks, Romanians against Germans; Russians against Ukrainians….
As the large myth of a communist utopia dissolves, it has rekindled the small myths of nationalist heavens. If not restrained by thoughtful people, I believe that such nationalisms are the monster of the future” (I said this in 1991.)
Today, in 2021, I say there are malignancies that have slumbered within us since, say, 1619 or earlier.
That’s my first metaphor and now here are my questions: In our body politic, as a nation or as a globe, what long-slumbering malignancies have only recently become apparent? Or more personally, in your own life and family, what has this pandemic disclosed?
For this, I will read to you a lengthy excerpt from Isabel Wilkerson’s stunning new book, titled Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents, a section titled “Toxins in the Permafrost and Heat Rising All Around”:
Wilkerson says, “In the haunted summer of 2016, an unaccustomed heat wave struck the Siberian tundra on the edge of what the ancients once called the End of the Land. Above the Arctic Circle and far from the tectonic plates colliding in American politics, the heat rose beneath the earth’s surface and also bore down from above, the air reaching an inconceivable 95 degrees on the Russian peninsula of Yamal. Wildfires flared, and pockets of methane gurgled beneath the normally frozen soil in the polar region.
Soon, the children of the indigenous herdsmen fell sick from a mysterious illness that many people alive had never seen and did not recognize. A twelve-year-old boy developed a high fever and acute stomach pangs, and passed away. Russian authorities declared a state of emergency and began airlifting hundreds of the sickened herding people, the Nenets, to the nearest hospital in Salekhard.
Scientists then identified what had afflicted the Siberian settlements. The aberrant heat had chiseled far deeper into the Russian permafrost than was normal and had exposed a toxin that had been encased since 1941, when the world was last at war. It was the pathogen anthrax, which had killed herds of reindeer all those decades ago and lain hidden in the animal carcasses long since buried in the permafrost. A thawed and tainted carcass rose to the surface that summer, the pathogen awakened, intact and as powerful as it had ever been. The pathogen spores seeped into the grazing land and infected the reindeer and spread to the herders who raised and relied upon them. The anthrax, like the reactivation of the human pathogens of hatred and tribalism in this evolving century, had never died. It lay in wait, sleeping, until extreme circumstances brought it to the surface and back to life.
On the other side of the planet, the world’s oldest and most powerful democracy was in spasms over an election that would transfix the Western world and become a psychic break in American history, one that will likely be studied and dissected for generations. That summer and into the fall and in the ensuing years to come, amid talk of Muslim bans, nasty women, border walls, and shithole nations, it was common to hear in certain circles the disbelieving cries, “This is not America,” or “I don’t recognize my country,” or “This is not who we are.” Except that this was and is our country and this was and is who we are, whether we have known or recognized it or not.”
That was my second metaphor and here are my questions:
My questions are similar to those I asked after the story of Uncle Toby: What toxins have been released from the corpses of those who have been lost to police violence, lost to the pandemic, and lost to fossil-fuel driven consumer capitalism? This can be a very personal question: Have those killer toxins of stress and sadness and anxiety leached their way into your family, your community, or you?
Now here’s my Metaphor #3:
This too is a lengthy excerpt from Isabel Wilkerson’s Caste, this from a chapter titled “An Old House and an Infrared Light:
“The inspector trained his infrared lens onto a misshapen bow in the ceiling, an invisible beam of light searching the layers of lath to test what the eye could not see. This house had been built generations ago, and I had noticed the slightest welt in a corner of plaster in a spare bedroom and had chalked it up to idiosyncrasy. Over time, the welt in the ceiling became a wave that widened and bulged despite the new roof. It had been building beyond perception for years. An old house is its own kind of devotional, a dowager aunt with a story to be coaxed out of her, a mystery, a series of interlocking puzzles awaiting solution. Why is this soffit tucked into the southeast corner of an eave? What is behind this discolored patch of brick? With an old house, the work is never done, and you don’t expect it to be.
America is an old house (Wilkerson says). We can never declare the work over. Wind, flood, drought, and human upheavals batter a structure that is already fighting whatever flaws were left unattended in the original foundation. When you live in an old house, you may not want to go into the basement after a storm to see what the rains have wrought. Choose not to look, however, at your own peril. The owner of an old house knows that whatever you are ignoring will never go away. Whatever is lurking will fester whether you choose to look or not. Ignorance is no protection from the consequences of inaction. Whatever you are wishing away will gnaw at you until you gather the courage to face what you would rather not see.”
(And Wilkerson continues…)
We in the developed world are like homeowners who inherited a house on a piece of land that is beautiful on the outside, but whose soil is unstable loam and rock, heaving and contracting over generations, cracks patched but the deeper ruptures waved away for decades, centuries even. Many people may rightly say, “I had nothing to do with how this all started. I have nothing to do with the sins of the past. My ancestors never attacked indigenous people, never owned slaves.” And, yes. Not one of us was here when this house was built. Our immediate ancestors may have had nothing to do with it, but here we are, the current occupants of a property with stress cracks and bowed walls and fissures built into the foundation. We are the heirs to whatever is right or wrong with it. We did not erect the uneven pillars or joists, but they are ours to deal with now.
And any further deterioration is, in fact, on our hands.
Unaddressed, the ruptures and diagonal cracks will not fix themselves. The toxins will not go away but, rather, will spread, leach, and mutate, as they already have. When people live in an old house, they come to adjust to the idiosyncrasies and outright dangers skulking in an old structure. They put buckets under a wet ceiling, prop up groaning floors, learn to step over that rotting wood tread in the staircase. The awkward becomes acceptable, and the unacceptable becomes merely inconvenient. Live with it long enough, and the unthinkable becomes normal. Exposed over the generations, we learn to believe that the incomprehensible is the way that life is supposed to be.”
That was my 3rd metaphor and, with this old house metaphor, my question to you, of course, is this: What are you wishing away, stepping over, or propping up that will gnaw at you until you gather the courage to face what you would rather not see?
And now, my final metaphor, #4.
After hearing about slumbering malignancies, oozing toxins, and ghoulies in the attic, walls, and cellar, you’ll be relieved to know that I’ll end on at least something of a hopeful note.
Several weeks ago, you may recall that I lost my nerve to preach on the topic of “how can we put things back together after this (expletive-deleted) show. I had just finished reading a book titled, A Place for Everything and subtitled, The Curious History of Alphabetical Order. The history of alphabetical order, you say? You think I’m daft but I loved it; and I commend it to you if you want to take your mind off – way off – whatever (expletive-deleted) show may be afflicting you these days!
I mean: what could be more basic, assumed, normal, familiar, fundamental, commonplace and, well, orderly than alphabetical order? It turns out that the history of alphabetical order is yet another way to pierce the illusion that we see the world so clearly and directly.
Several months ago we shared our offering plate with something called the Endangered Alphabet Project which at the time I thought was, uh, a little wacky. Now I’ve come around: There are lots of alphabets and they can be structured in infinite ways and this is indicative that we can shape our reality according to our values. We are not stuck with the status quo!
Last Sunday Annie showed a video glimpse of a future where housing and income are accorded to every person as a human right. I noticed that someone snorted in the chat, “Pie in the Sky!” I say, “Not so fast! “ It all depends on how we choose to order our reality. The Chelsea Eats program we supported today provides not only food but is beginning, with communities across the country, to experiment with UBI, Universal Basic Income. It’s not pie in the sky; it’s for real!
The history of alphabetical order causes us, again in David Brooks’ words, “to pause to appreciate how flexible and tenuous our grip on reality actually is.”
If our grip is flexible and tenuous, well, we may actually be able to change our grip. The old adage is, remember, “When you’re in a slump, don’t swing harder. Change your stance.”
The history of the alphabet, of all things, tells us that there are innumerable ways of ordering things and that these systems can be arbitrary – or intentional – inclusive or exclusive, life-affirming or death-dealing.
Quick! What are the days of the week? Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday. Now, quick! Put them in alphabetical order. It’s not easy to do. We order things in ways that are familiar but also in ways that make sense or…do not make sense!
Encyclopedias and dictionaries did not used to be organized alphabetically. An early Chinese encyclopedia classified all animals according to 1) those that belong to the Emperor; 2) embalmed ones; 3) those that are trained; 4) suckling pigs; 5) mermaids; 6) stray dogs; 7) those drawn with a very fine camel’s hair brush; 8) those that have just broken a flower vase, and 9) those that resemble flies from a distance.
As recently as 1800, Harvard & Yale college directories listed their students, not alphabetically, but according to their family’s wealth and social position, with subcategories for those whose fathers had attended the same college. It used to be routine to seat students in a classroom by saying, “Will the smart people please sit in front?”
I know you want me to go on and on about this, but I love the history of the Dewey Decimal System.
For example: You’ll find books about religion from Dewey #200 to Dewey #300. Books about Christianity, however, go from #200-#289 and then the entirety of Islam is contained in just #297 alone! In other words, all ordering systems highlight some things and diminish or overlook others. We think of the Dewey Decimal System as value neutral but it’s anything but! It’s Anglo-centric, Christo-centric, and just by the way if you want to find books related to women, the Dewey Decimal System patronizingly places books about women alongside books about manners and etiquette!
Melvil Dewey, by the way, was a founder of the American Library Association and librarian for the State of New York but was forced to resign in 1905 after confronted by allegations of sexual harassment of women, not to mention numerous acts of racism and anti-Semitism. But I digress.
Anyway, there’s a fine section of this book devoted to the history of the index card, formerly known as the card index. I’ll save that for another sermon.
And, did you know that telephones were originally sold in pairs so that two people could actually talk and listen to one another? Think of that! Even our telephone exchanges – Bedford’s 275, for example, used to be CRESTVIEW (the church phone was CRESTVIEW 5-7994), and that was a step up from old party-line phones. And if this seems irrelevant think for a moment about the profusion of Twitter, Parler, Gab and other platforms that make it virtually impossible to have what Martin Buber called a sacred I-Thou conversation alternating between one person who speaks and one person who listens? What if we organized our communities so that people might actually get to know one another one-to-one?
The alphabet is a kind of metaphor that again reminds us to appreciate not only how flexible and tenuous our grip on reality actually is, but how our systems of organizing reality are indeed malleable, adaptable, and capable of being reordered. That is the task before us now.
It was the Serpent in Shaw’s play Back To Methuselah who said : “You see things; and you say, ‘Why?’ But I dream things that never were; and I say, ‘Why not?’”
My last question to you this morning is just that: