“Getting the Hell Out of Paradise”
A Sermon by Rev. John E. Gibbons
Delivered on Sunday, February 24, 2019
At The First Parish in Bedford
A Thought to Ponder at the Beginning:
“I say all this because hope is not like a lottery ticket you can sit on the sofa and clutch, feeling lucky. I say it because hope is an ax you break down doors with in an emergency; because hope should shove you out the door, because it will take everything you have to steer the future away from endless war, from the annihilation of the earth’s treasures and the grinding down of the poor and marginal. Hope just means another world might be possible, not promised, not guaranteed. Hope calls for action; action is impossible without hope… To hope is to give yourself to the future, and that commitment to the future makes the present inhabitable.”
—REBECCA SOLNIT, Hope in the Dark
Autobiography in Five Short Chapters by Portia Nelson
“There’s a Hole in My Sidewalk”
I walk down the street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk. I fall in.
I am lost . . . I am helpless.
It isn’t my fault . . .
It takes forever to find a way out.
I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I pretend I don’t see it.
I fall in again.
I can’t believe I am in this same place. But it isn’t my fault.
It still takes a long time to get out.
I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk. I see it there.
I still fall . . . it’s a habit . . . but,
My eyes are open.
I know where I am.
It is my fault.
I get out immediately.
I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk. I walk around it.
I walk down another street.
Time for All Ages
A Chinese farmer gets a horse, which soon runs away. A neighbor says, “That’s bad news.” The farmer replies, “Good news, bad news, who can say?”
The horse comes back and brings another horse with him. Good news, you might say.
The farmer gives the second horse to his son, who rides it, then is thrown and badly breaks his leg.
“So sorry for your bad news,” says the concerned neighbor. “Good news, bad news, who can say?” the farmer replies.
In a week or so, the emperor’s men come and take every able-bodied young man to fight in a war. The farmer’s son is spared.
Good news, of course.
“Parable of the Talents” (excerpts) by Octavia Butler
Here we are— Energy, Mass, Life, Shaping life, Mind, Shaping Mind,
God, Shaping God. Consider—
We are born Not with purpose, But with potential.
To survive / Let the past / Teach you-
Past customs, Struggles, Leaders and thinkers.
Let These Help you. Let them inspire you, Warn you, Give you strength.
God is change.
Past is past.
What was Cannot Come again….
To survive, know the past.
Let it touch you.
Then let The past Go….
It focuses our dreams,
Guides our plans,
Strengthens our efforts.
And offers us
Each of us,
Do the impossible
As long as we can convince ourselves
That it has been done before.
(This sermon was written in preparation for John preaching at two upcoming installation services: that of the Rev. Lisa Perry-Wood at the First Parish in Brookline, MA and that of the Rev. Lara Hoke at the First Church Unitarian in Littleton, MA)
I’ll begin with a story that may or may not have much to do with this sermon but it does have a good deal of self-deprecating mirth and, without it, this sermon would be sadly short of mirth, which is never good.
This is a story about church life and ministry and it takes place more than 20 years ago in Bedford, and it has to do with the Christmas Eve service. Christmas Eve, in my experience, is all about joyous anticipation, eager expectation, jangled nerves, the fulfillment of long-awaited desires, and the coming of – some would have it – a savior! So it’s sort of like the installation of a new minister, right? At last! Happy days are here again!
I’d fretted about preparing the perfect Christmas Eve service. And so I had the brainstorm that a newcomer to our congregation – a woman who was a recent émigré from the Soviet Union – could tell a lovely Russian Christmas story. And as a bonus I bought more than 200 fresh white roses to give to everyone (I’m not sure why exactly, but it seemed like a grand gesture). Well, the way it turned out, the Russian émigré had taken up with a man in the parish and in the course of things this broke up a long-standing relationship that man had with another woman in the parish and, thus, a good many of the jilted woman’s friends were in church that Christmas Eve, thinking “how dare this male minister invite that woman to speak from our pulpit;” and they stared daggers at me. It’s never good when, before you’ve said a thing, a good portion of the congregation is staring daggers. Then the émigré woman’s long rather odd holiday story – reindeer and sleighs and snowdrifts and I don’t know what else – began in such a thick Russian accent that I had to stand next to her to translate her English into English. As for the white roses, as soon as I handed them out, they immediately wilted and turned limp and black. And even though the candles did not catch things on fire and bring the fire department (that was another year), it was a terrible service. I knew it, and I had no one else to blame but me. I hate it when that happens.
When, eventually, the horrible, terrible, no good, very bad service was over, I readied myself to go to a parishioner’s house after-party where, no doubt, people would avoid talking with me about the aforesaid shudder-worthy service. But every Christmas Eve I make a large batch of hot chocolate and that night I figured I’d take what was left over to the party. And, thus, I carried a large and heavy percolator urn of hot chocolate which I carefully carried out the door toward my car, except that it being a wondrously snowy and icy Christmas Eve, I slipped on the brick walk in front of the church, fell soundly on my butt which allowed me, lying on the pavement, to see a wave of hot chocolate rise from the top of the urn and arc so perfectly that it fell directly on my head and glasses and the hot sweet mess soaked my hair and shirt and tie and suit.
No wonder that a colleague says his favorite holiday memory is to see, on Christmas Eve, the receding image of the church in the rear-view mirror of his car!
When welcoming a savior, know that you’re just as likely to land on your butt covered by a hot mess. And this is analogous, indeed, to the installation of a new minister.
I have slipped and fallen, disappointed others, and disappointed myself many many times in my ministry. Ministers and congregations regularly disappoint one another. Services that fall flat and comedic pratfalls are the least of our downfalls, for we have and do and will let one another down, make mistakes, miss cues, lose opportunities, and blow it.
Churches are in the business of proclaiming hope; and, well, that’s hard to do when you’re not always feeling it. These dark days, especially, I ask, “How are you?” and I’m much more likely to hear expressions of anger and apprehension, fear and dull dyspepsia than I am to hear anybody say, “I sure am feeling hopeful!” Hopeful for what? Next year’s Patriots season? I don’t think so. Spring, I suppose. Robert Mueller? Kamala Harris, maybe? The candidate I’m supporting is Eugene Debs who once said, “I would not be a Moses to lead you into the Promised Land, because if I could lead you into it, someone else could lead you out of it!”
This morning I want briefly to reflect on the nature of hope. I think there are implications as relevant to our own personal private struggles with hopelessness, today’s special occasion to keep hope alive between a minister and a congregation, and as well our challenge to be hopeful in the face of, for lack of a better words, global illiberalism, authoritarianism, and kleptocracy.
In 1915, amidst the despairing mess that was the First World War, Virginia Woolf wrote in her diary, “The future is dark, which is on the whole, the best thing the future can be, I think.” She’s saying that the future is unknown, neither bright nor horrible; and that we ought not confuse the one with the other. We sometimes say we live in unsettled times but, you know, that’s a good thing because if things were settled, well, it’s over, it’s fated, it’s determined and done When things are unsettled, we have the opportunity to be hopeful.
You know, the act of installing a minister is the culmination of a process known as “settling” a minister. I’m here to say that nothing is settled! Nothing! A settled minister, like a settled congregation, is a minister or congregation in trouble or possibly dead. Don’t settle for anything less than an unsettled minister and an unsettled congregation!
Moreover, to live in a dark and unsettled time calls for us to be deliberately determinedly hopeful.
I’m influenced by a little book given to me by a parishioner, Hope in the Dark, by Rebecca Solnit. In it she says,
…Hope is not like a lottery ticket you can sit on the sofa and clutch, feeling lucky. …Hope is an ax you break down doors with in an emergency (we’ll talk more about emergencies in a minute); …hope should shove you out the door, because it will take everything you have to steer the future away from endless war, from the annihilation of the earth’s treasures and the grinding down of the poor and marginal. Hope just means another world might be possible, not promised, not guaranteed. Hope calls for action; action is impossible without hope…. To hope is to give yourself to the future, and that commitment to the future makes the present inhabitable.”
That’s what all of us want most, right? To make the present inhabitable.
One of Solnit’s chapters is titled, “Getting the Hell Out of Paradise,” and in it she cautions us not to be duped by notions of either hell or paradise. We’re Universalists (and you’ll recall that Universalist bells ring to the tune of No Hell! No Hell! No Hell!). So we’re on board with that. Things are hellish enough this side of the grave. But neither should we be duped by notions of paradise. “Paradise,” Solnit says, “is not the place in which you arrive but the journey toward it.”
“The industrialized world (she says) has tried to approximate paradise in its suburbs, with luxe, calme, volupte, cul-de-sacs, cable television and two car garages, and it has produced a soft ennui that shades over into despair and a decay of the soul suggesting that Paradise is already a gulag. Countless desperate teenagers will tell you so. For paradise does not require of us courage, selflessness, creativity, passion: paradise…is passive…sedative…soulless.”
As Unitarian Universalists we are called to soulful lives of courage, selflessness, creativity, and passion. If we are to live our values, we must get the hell out of paradise!
Solnits recalls that the central motif in all of Judeo-Christianity is capital-P Paradise and the capital-F Fall. (Now if I were a really creative minister I’d make a connection between the Fall and me falling on my ass on Christmas Eve, but I’ll leave that up to you.) I’ve learned there were even some Christian heretics who worshipped Eve because she liberated humanity from Paradise. She got humanity the hell out of Paradise. This is called “the myth of the fortunate fall” and if you google that, as I did, you’ll discover that this myth has been life-saving, salvific, to oppressed and marginalized people, political prisoners in all kinds of gulags. It can be life-saving and hope-inducing to us as well for it illustrates our good fortune to be banished from the despair of hell as from the delusion of soulless laid-back paradise. Instead, we are called out into the great open windy, muddy, slippery, horrific, beatific, uncertain world.
Every victory must be temporary or incomplete. One of my predecessors in Bedford was Napoleon W. Lovely (oh how lovely to be named Napoleon!) and he said, “Though our knowledge is incomplete and our truth partial, and our love imperfect, We believe that new light is ever waiting to break through individual hearts and minds to enlighten (our ways). That there is mutual strength in willing cooperation, And that the bonds of love keep open the gates of freedom.”
He’s talking about hope! Hope as an ax to use in an emergency. Inside the word emergency, remember, is emerge, for it is from an emergency that new things come forth. Make no mistake: there’s no emergency on our southern border but you and I know we are living in a time of emergency!
Last week I heard an interview with David Wallace Wells, author of a new book, The Uninhabitable Earth, in which he describes hope as a matter of perspective. For example, the common wisdom used to be that a positive outcome of our climate crisis would be, by the end of this century, to hold climate warming to between zero degrees and two degrees. Now it seems certain that we will warm minimally by two degrees and quite possibly by four degrees. At two degrees, there will be a death toll of 150 million people – that’s the best case and most hopeful scenario! At four degrees, the impact on sea rise and agriculture and public health is just, well, beyond comprehension. And despite this horror, Wallace Wells is hopeful because, he says, every fraction “means averting some suffering or causing more suffering and, while it’s already too late to avert anything south of two degrees, it’s never too late to change the course of our warming and make lives more prosperous and healthier and safer and more abundant and happier going forward.”
Facing the certainty of 150 million deaths and still staying hopeful, that’s a guy who knows how to use hope as an ax to shove you out the door, who knows how to keep the emerge in emergency, a guy who has gotten the hell out of paradise!
Now I don’t want to sugar-coat this sermon with too much good news but there is good news. The invention of Viagra, for example, is saving endangered species by eliminating the demand for aphrodisiacs made from green turtles, seahorses, geckos, and the velvet from half-grown antlers of casribou. There are wolves again in Yellowstone. Deer, moose, bear cougars, and coyotes are coming back in droves… some of them showing up for ice cream at Bedford Farms! In California, there are seeds that lie dormant for decades and germinate only after fire, causing some of the burned-over places to bloom most lavishly. The number of people identifying as Native American in this country has doubled between the 1990 and 2000 census. And I never knew that in 1999, Inuit culture and language in Canada were saved by the creation of the province of Nunavut (NUN-a-vus), three times the size of Texas, ten times the size of Britain, a fifth of all Canada. How many of you knew that? And, while I won’t underestimate the danger of their death throes, white supremacy and patriarchy show ample capacity to self-destruct.
Well, that’s enough good news…and bad news.
Virginia Woolf said, “The future is dark, which is on the whole, the best thing the future can be, I think.” Welcome to a dark, unsettled ministry with a dark, unsettled congregation. There’s nothing better and perhaps nothing more difficult. May your bonds of love keep open the gates of freedom. Have a nice trip to paradise. And if you get to those pearly gates, get out! Return to the great open windy, muddy, slippery, horrific, beatific, uncertain world.
And watch where you step, don’t trip on the ice. But when you fall, consider it your good fortune to get up, again and again.
That’s what I’ve got to say.
Henry David Thoreau:
A man is not his hope, nor his despair, nor yet his past deed. We know not yet what we have done, still less what we are doing. Wait till evening, and other parts of our day’s work will shine than we had thought at noon, and we shall discover the real purport of our toil. As when the farmer has reached the end of the furrow and looks back, he can tell best where the pressed earth shines most.