“Try to Praise the Mutilated World: A Call to Resistance”
A Sermon by Rev. John Gibbons
Delivered on December 4, 2016
At the First Parish in Bedford
A Thought To Ponder at the Beginning:
“The trick, I suppose, is to contradict those who say vigilance is not necessary, while at the same time being careful not to declare any particular person or thing the enemy – that religion, this or that political party, a certain constituency, capitalism, this or that head of state. It would be to dismantle the stage upon which any tyrant, any self-anointed claimant to power, performed. It would be to direct the attention of his audience to a place where that tyrant has no authority, no influence.”
—from Resistance, a work of fiction by Barry Lopez
A Time for All Ages
“The Fowlers” (from The Greek Passion by Nikos Kazantzakis; as rendered by William R. White in Speaking in Stories)
Two fowlers went up on a mountain to spread their nets to catch some birds, for that is what fowlers do. Carefully they set their trap before departing. When they returned, the nets were filled with doves. Desperately the birds flew back and forth trying to escape through the finely woven net.
Originally ecstatic over the large number of birds, the hunters, upon examining the birds more closely, were not very happy with their catch. “There will be no market for the likes of them,” said the first. “No one will buy such skinny birds.”
The second man shook his head. “A small investment in mash is all that is needed, and in a few short days we will have these birds nice and plump.” Daily the two men brought feed and water, which the birds devoured quickly. Slowly they grew in size.
Only one bird refused to eat. As the others got fat, this obstinate bird got skinnier and skinnier, and it still struggled to get out of the net.
On the day the hunters came to take all of the birds to market the dove who refused to eat had become so thin that, by a mighty struggle, it managed to squeeze through the net and fly away. It alone was free!
“Wood, Field and Stream,” by Nelson Bryant
Once there was a boy who beheld the earth with a wonder much like yours. Each dawn was a promise, each season a delight, and the world, for all its anguish, was good to know.
Those were years when the boy could spend an entire September afternoon …watching trout hover above the pebbles in a brook, a time when the years that lay ahead seemed inexhaustible, a time of soaring dreams.
And it was a time when a gull’s cry, muted by fog and distance, could call the boy down miles of empty beach, his thoughts as wide as the ocean.
It may startle you to know that your father, who was once the boy, still feels the tug of moonlight and marvels at the first lilies of spring.
The secret I would have you know is that even though the years will steal your fresh beauty, it need only be, in truth, a minor theft. What you must guard against is the jaded state wherein there is nothing new to see or learn.
Marvel at the sun, rejoice in the rhythmic wheeling of the stars and learn their names, cry aloud a December’s first snow, slide down the wind with a hawk and cherish the smell of wood smoke and mayflowers or the caress of a warm wool blanket.
Tarry by a stream where willows bend and flee tedium’s gray embrace.
Cherish laughter and whimsy but battle unrelentingly for what you know is right and be aware that the thieves of wonder can enter any heart.
You will love and be loved, hurt and be hurt, and you will know despair and taste regret but if your father’s wish is answered, you will accept all this and ask for more.
This is Adam Zagajewski’s poem, translated from the Polish by Clare Cavanagh, titled Try to Praise the Mutilated World:
Try to praise the mutilated world.
Remember June’s long days,
and wild strawberries, drops of rosé wine.
The nettles that methodically overgrow
the abandoned homesteads of exiles.
You must praise the mutilated world.
You watched the stylish yachts and ships;
one of them had a long trip ahead of it,
while salty oblivion awaited others.
You’ve seen the refugees going nowhere,
you’ve heard the executioners sing joyfully.
You should praise the mutilated world.
Remember the moments when we were together
in a white room and the curtain fluttered.
Return in thought to the concert where music flared.
You gathered acorns in the park in autumn
and leaves eddied over the earth’s scars.
Praise the mutilated world
and the gray feather a thrush lost,
and the gentle light that strays and vanishes
I am told that Adam Zagajewski is the greatest Polish poet alive today. He came to American attention when the New Yorker magazine silently featured this poem in their first issue to be published after the attacks of September 11, 2001.
Waking up the day after the election, more than a few of you told me that you were reminded of how devastated you felt after 9/11. The election, I believe, was a real catastrophe. Things were bad enough before the election; things are more evidently mutilated now; and – who knows? – but we can be pretty sure things will get worse.
Nevertheless, the poet says we must accept our world as it is it with grace. I’ll say some more about accepting the election but, first, let’s stick with this poem. The poem juxtaposes the disfigurement and the simple joys of life. The poet says that that one must learn to accept or praise the faults of the world if we are to see the beauty and help to heal the mutilated world. When things get hard, we must try to remember the good things.
Notice how Zagajewski starts by asking us to “try to praise the mutilated world,” then he demands “You must praise the mutilated world,” then in a parental tone, he says, “You should praise the mutilated world,” until finally he simply pleads with us to “Praise the mutilated world.” It’s almost as if he’s trying to figure out how to do this hard thing of praising amidst all the devastation.
Filled as the world is with refugees, war, disasters, and terror we nonetheless must try to remember June’s long days, wild strawberries, rosé wine, the fluttering curtains, the moments we were together, the music, the light.
We must praise the mutilated world because praising is itself a hard thing to do. The poem doesn’t say how to do it. But somehow we must find a way to do it. And finally, importantly, the poem ends hopefully, recalling the gentle light “that strays and vanishes… and returns.”
No, the poem doesn’t tell us how to do it, and you may be sure I can’t tell you how to do it, but for darn sure we won’t learn how to do it if all we do is listen to the analysts and pundits and chatterati and talking heads on CNN or, dare I say, Twitter. Turn it off for a while!
I say that now is the time to spend more time with art and music and poetry and nature and one another for these are what have therapeutic power.
Consider this magnificent AIDS Quilt that has risen from one of the deadliest of epidemics. This Quilt praises the mutilated world. Each panel represents a life lost but also a life loved, even after premature death. The entire Quilt, considered the largest piece of community folk art in the world, memorializes 94,000 people. It’s estimated to weigh 54 tons. And, we must remember: it was conceived at a time when the AIDS stigma was so great that public acknowledgment often was impossible and even funeral homes and cemeteries refused their services so that the Quilt became the only way for families and loved ones to remember those they loved.
The Quilt praises the mutilated world. It is an act of homespun defiance, a plea to mourn and remember what has been lost and it is a call to resist hopelessness.
Now, back for a moment to acceptance. Yes, I accept the election of Donald J. Trump as our next president. This is a bit reminiscent of a famous anecdote about Margaret Fuller who once dramatically proclaimed “I accept the universe!” To which the philosopher Thomas Carlyle sardonically replied, “Ye gads, she’d better!” Yes, I accept the election because that is the mutilated reality.
Under no circumstances, however, do I accept racism, misogyny, Islamophobia, hate speech, xenophobia, fear-mongering, lying, bullying, anti-intellectualism, mean-spirited bloviating vulgarity and stupidity, oligarchy, patriarchy and plutocracy. Don’t get me started.
I – and we – will resist these blasphemies with every fiber of our being. This is not about Trump; this is about behaviors that blaspheme all that is compassionate, humane, and holy in this world.
Look at that quote at the top of your order of service, from Barry Lopez’s novel Resistance.
He says, “The trick, I suppose, is to contradict those who say vigilance is not necessary (We must be vigilant! We must not normalize this moment in history!) while at the same time being careful not to declare any particular person or thing the enemy – that religion, this or that political party, a certain constituency, capitalism, this or that head of state. (Rather it is for us to) dismantle the stage upon which (any Trump) or any tyrant, any self-anointed claimant to power, performs. (It is for us) to direct the attention of his audience to a place where that tyrant has no authority, no influence.”
Resistance is something we need to get good at. I think I first started to think about resistance last year as our climate justice activism was heating up. We were putting up that Black Lives Matter banner, a bunch of us were getting arrested, going to court, being feisty and living up to our bumper sticker of not being a well-behaved church.
Let Megan be in our prayers today for she and hundreds of other clergy responded to the Standing Rock Sioux’s call to join the water protectors for an interfaith day of prayer and resistance to the Dakota Access Pipeline.
I too did a bit of resistance last week by joining Boston fast food workers in their fight for a living wage. They had a one day strike on Wednesday and on Thursday, with many other clergy, I accompanied workers returning to their shifts at Dunkin Donuts and McDonalds I introduced myself to their managers and asked for their assurance that there would be no recriminations after their employees exercised their federally-protected right to strike.
There are lots of opportunities to resist, and there likely will be many more to come, and so many months ago I got a copy of this book by the Old Testament scholar and theologian Walter Brueggemann. I haven’t read much of Brueggemann but I’ve heard him speak a few times, and he’s an old craggy bearded intense grumpy Old Testament-like prophet. He’s rock-solidly biblical but he’s also radical. And so when I saw this book titled, Sabbath As Resistance: Saying NO to the Culture of Now,” I bought a used copy and I never got around to reading it…until last week.
So this little book is about resistance but it’s not all about demonstrations and protests and rabble-rousing – though those things can be all well and good and necessary. Rather it’s about the frame of heart and mind we bring to our present circumstances. Like the moral of the fowlers story I told to the kids, we may not always be able to alter the net in which we’re caught but maybe we can change something about ourselves that will free us from the net.
So this is a book about the importance of keeping the Sabbath but it’s not about going to church, it’s not moralistic, it’s not about rules and whether a person should be able to play cards or buy liquor on Sundays.
Brueggemann says, instead, “that the celebration of Sabbath is an act of both resistance and alternative. It is resistance because it is a visible insistence that our lives are not defined by the production and consumption of commodity goods….It is (also) an alternative to the demanding, chattering, pervasive presence of (trumped-up) advertising and its great liturgical claim of professional sports that devour all our rest time. The alternative on offer,” he says, “is the awareness and practice of the claim that we are situated on the receiving end of the gifts of God.”
Translate that if you need to, but he is saying that for our own good, for the well-being of our very souls, we must make time to praise the mutilated world. Brueggemann calls on us to resist anxiety (and embrace calm), resist coercion (and embrace freedom), resist exclusivism (and embrace inclusivity), resist multi-tasking which gives our full attention to nothing (and instead embrace this one moment now).
Brueggeman, again, is an Old Testament scholar and he makes a prophetic critique of ancient Israel which had forgotten their liberating God of the exodus and, instead, became seduced and captive to land and power and commodity. The lead representative of turning away from the Sabbath and turning toward commodity was Solomon. Stick with me here, people, ‘cause this is going to get good! Solomon’s grandiose temple, described in the Book of Kings was designed solely to impress:
The interior of the inner sanctuary was twenty cubits long, twenty cubits wide, and twenty cubits high; he overlaid it with pure gold. He also overlaid the altar with cedar. Solomon overlaid the inside of the house with pure gold, then he drew chains of gold across, in front of the inner sanctuary, and overlaid it with gold….
So Solomon made all the vessels that were in the house of the Lord: the golden altar, the golden table for the bread of the Presence, the lampstands of pure gold, five on the south side and five on the north, in front of the inner sanctuary; the flowers, the lamps, and the tongs, of gold; the cups, snuffers, basins, dishes for incense, and firepans, of pure gold; the sockets for the doors of the nave of the temple, of gold. (1 Kgs. 6:20-21; 7:48-50)
GOLD!!! GOLD!!! What is this??? Trump Tower!!! Mar-a-Lago!!! Holy Goldman Sachs!!!
Now this is Brueggemann talking: “Beyond the temple, Solomon was the big time entrepreneur who managed to amass every kind of commodity available. And like all such celebrity accumulators, others were eager to contribute to Solomon’s collection. “Every one of them brought a present, objects of silver and gold, garments, weaponry, spices, horses, and mules, so much year by year.” (10:25)
This gets even better: “In addition to temple gold and exotic possessions, Solomon’s accumulation of women points to the conclusion that even women – wives and concubines – had become commodities for the king, either trophy mates or instruments of policy.” (11:3)
“This…acquisitiveness testifies to a kind of restlessness on Solomon’s part. It is easiest to imagine that Solomon never ceased to plan and scheme and negotiate and usurp in his drive to accumulate. Such restlessness in the service of acquisitiveness surely meant no Sabbath for him. We may judge, moreover, that Solomon is a representative embodiment of commodity restlessness that pervaded Israel in its disregard of all things covenantal.”
What is being contrasted here is the ark of the covenant with the art of the deal. You can worship God or you can worship Mammon; you cannot worship both. Covenant or commodity? We’ve got to decide! Which will it be?
Ours is a covenantal faith. Not dependent on any supernatural authority, we covenant with one another. We make promises to one another that love shall be the spirit of this church, that we will value the worth and dignity of every human being, that we will praise the life we share in common with all life – not me first, not America first – but we will try to praise the whole of this mutilated world and its pieces: the wild strawberries, the wine, the music, the leaves that cover the scarred earth, the acorns, the moments when we are together, the light.
To live in covenant is to reject covetousness, which is the pursuit of commodity at the expense of our neighbor; to live in covenant is to reject idolatry, which is the worship of some lesser thing at the expense of the whole.
Brueggemann ends his little book with an examination of the 73rd Psalm which he calls a journey from the world of commodity to the world of communion and covenant. First the psalmist ruminates about the seductions of the “wicked.” And the psalmist describes the wicked. Here’s the biblical description of the wicked: They are prosperous (v.3), “not in trouble” (v.5), proud (v.6), well-fed (frog’s legs!) and well-entertained (v.7), cynical and socially indifferent (v.8), treated like celebrities (v.10), defiant before and dismissive of God (v.11), and rich and “at ease” (v.12).
Now the psalmist actually thinks all this sounds pretty good, attractive and very very tempting. But then – later, almost too late – the psalmist realizes that such a life has no staying power. The psalmist realizes that so much in our commodity culture promotes phony worthless wasteful selfish stuff. Instead we must praise only that which is praiseworthy.
Brueggemann pauses at the 73rd Psalm, verse 23 which says, “Nevertheless I am continually with you; you hold my right hand.”
And Brueggemann tells this story: “I recently heard a Lutheran pastor describe a woman who had walked seven hundred miles as a refugee to escape a violent war and was finally able to cross a national boundary out of the war zone. She walked all that way and brought with her an eight-year-old girl, who walks beside her. For seven hundred miles the child held her hand tightly. When they reached the safety, the girl loosened her grip, and the woman looked at her hand. It was raw and bloody with an open wound, because the little girl had held on tightly in her fearfulness. As in verse 23: Nevertheless I am continually with you; You hold my right hand.”
And Brueggemann concludes, “This is no casual hand-holding. This is a life-or-death grip that does not let go. No-Sabbath existence imagines getting through on our own, surrounded by commodities to accumulate and before which to bow down. But a commodity cannot hold one’s hand. Only late does the psalmist come to know otherwise. Only late may we also come to know…but likely not without Sabbath…rest. We, with our hurts, fears, and exhaustion, are left restless until then.”
This is a call to resist and we will resist in many ways. This is also a call to honor the Sabbath and keep it holy. Sabbath is an occasion to resist the temptations of the wicked, to rest, and to praise the mutilated world. Clench and unclench your fist. Hold one another’s hands. (The congregation held hands.)
Be not anxious or afraid.
“You will love and be loved, hurt and be hurt, and you will know despair and taste regret but you will accept all this and ask for more.”
And look to the gentle light that strays…and vanishes……and returns.
May it be so.
“You will love and be loved, hurt and be hurt, and you will know despair and taste regret but you will accept all this and ask for more.”