September 16, 2018
Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost
Writing this sermon was quite challenging for me and I’ll explain why. I knew where I wanted to start it. I wanted to start it by talking about the lectionary readings for today. I also knew where I wanted to end up. I wanted to end up reminding you about the Down the Road project and encouraging you all to attend the third Sunday meeting we are holding after worship today. But how was I going to get from point A (the readings) to point B (the Down the Road project) through an orderly and compelling progression of ideas? That was my problem. This challenge was made additionally ….well … challenging…. by the fact that it was important to weave into the sermon the concept of commitment, or recommitment. This is Recommitment Season at Seekers and members of my Mission Group, Learners and Teachers, typically preach during this season and talk about the topic of commitment to Seekers.
I thought about this sermon a lot and I think I finally found a good way to do everything I wanted to do. You can let me know if it works or not. I’m going to begin by speaking briefly about each of the readings and drawing a lesson from each one. Just to clue you in in advance, the three lessons are:
- Listen to Wisdom when you hear it
- Speech is powerful
- Become friends with reality
Then I will relate these lessons to the Seekers Down the Road project, describing some new ways in which Seekers and their family members can act on and benefit from a commitment to Seekers Church. Just in case you don’t know about the Down the Road project let me give you a brief description. Last Spring, a group of Seekers met several times to brainstorm about how Seekers might work together to plan ahead for our later years. The group generated a lot of ideas about how we could create supportive structures and resources for older Seekers (and, perhaps, others) within Seekers to address future needs. We brainstormed a ton of ideas, including: finding or creating affordable multigenerational housing close to Seekers, encouraging multigenerational interaction and learning, sharing resources and information, health and fitness activities, providing spiritual and social support to housebound individuals, creating support groups, and many, many others. Most of these ideas would benefit not only older Seekers, but younger ones as well. In our most recent brainstorming meeting, the group decided to share our ideas with the wider Seekers community to learn about their plans and perceived needs “down the road.” So, we will be meeting here in the Sanctuary directly after worship and I hope you all will come.
The first lectionary reading for today is in Proverbs. It begins with Wisdom crying out in the streets on the busiest corner, where everyone who comes into the city can hear her. No one is really listening to her, though, so she warns them that they ignore her at their own peril.
I have taken several School for Christian Growth classes with Marjory Bankson in which we focused on the Judeo-Christian Wisdom tradition that is found in Proverbs, in the Wisdom of Solomon, the Book of John, and other ancient writings. In those classes I learned that Wisdom is Sophia, from the Greek word for wisdom. She the female aspect of God. In the book of John, Sophia appears as the Word. Even before creation, the Word was with God and was God. Many see the Sophia, or Wisdom, archetype as a survival of an ancient pre-Judaic mother goddess so often represented in Stone Age artifacts.
I like the Wiccan portrayal of the wisdom goddess as an old woman, often referred to as the crone archetype. Archetypes are images or symbols that seem to arise spontaneously in all cultures because of the universality of many core human experiences. It’s interesting that when I looked up the word crone in the dictionary, there were two definitions. The first was “An old woman considered to be ugly, a hag.” The other was “A woman who is venerated for experience, judgment, and wisdom.”
These two definitions reflect the difference between how old women are viewed in our modern, youth-obsessed culture (ugly, hags) and how they were viewed in ancient times (wise and venerated). Crone and hag were originally positive words for old women. Crone comes from crown, indicating wisdom emanating from the head; hag comes from the Greek “hagio,” which means holy. Crones were typically leaders, midwives and healers in their communities, especially in preliterate societies where there were no books and elders of all genders held the tribe’s knowledge in their memories. (I said “all genders” instead of “both genders” because we are becoming more and more aware that gender is not a dichotomous classification but rather a complex spectrum). There is an Inuit saying that expresses the importance of the wisdom held by elders: “When an elder dies, a library burns.”
A certain degree of ambivalence toward older women existed even in ancient times because of the role old women played in society. Since they were the ones who knew about the healing properties of local plants, the ones who helped women give birth, and who nursed the sick and the dying, crones were both revered and feared. Their knowledge of natural remedies and of healing practices often led people to think they possessed supernatural powers (and perhaps sometimes they did). In medieval times, older woman (often widows in black) were persecuted as witches. But the crone does not decide who lives and dies. She is just the wise old woman who sits at the door between life and death, welcoming new life, providing healing care to the suffering, and, when necessary, comforting those who are making a transition to the other side.
So, this is the first lesson I take from the readings. Listen to Wisdom when she speaks. I have always been attracted to and identified with the crone image and now I’m old enough to be a crone myself (and have been for quite a while, actually). I think I’ll even be presumptuous enough to characterize myself as a wise old women and warn you that I have some important things to tell you. I hope you will listen to me.
The reading from the Epistle of James talks about how powerful speech is, both for good and for evil. The author says that though the tongue is very small, it can achieve great things. He likens the tongue to a small fire that can set a huge forest ablaze. Words can change how we view reality and they can change reality itself because they are a medium through which we can unite as a community to imagine and create new relationships and structures. Something important that I think we need to speak about together in community is aging. Whoops, I said it. Aging. The A-word. Most people don’t like the word “aging.” Nor do they like any of the euphemisms often applied to older adults: elderly, senior citizen, golden ager, retiree, etc. because of the stereotypes they suggest. A lot of people dislike the term elders, too, though, to me, it sounds rather distinguished. I like it because it connotes the wisdom that we often fail to attribute to old age. The term older adults doesn’t stir up quite so much anxiety, but it sounds so clinical. In any event, sensitivities and lack of accepted vocabulary make it hard to talk about the aging process. Though church memberships are getting older, aging is often the elephant in the room that everyone knows about but no one talks about. In recent months we have been talking about it here, though. It’s still hard to know what words to use. That’s why we settled on the name Down the Road to denote the elephant in the room (or the elephant down the road). Maybe as we talk about it more we will get less freaked out over the word aging and other words related to the aging process. There is no doubt in my mind that our words have already stoked a fire and I hope this sermon and our meeting afterwards will fan the flame. I hope you will attend the meeting regardless of how far “down the road” you are. In the flier for the meeting, I quoted Bernard Baruch, who said: “To me, old age is always about 15 years older than I am.” I encourage younger Seekers to come to the meeting even though they may not be ready to plan that far ahead. We still want to hear about your future plans and needs and remember that, no matter what our age is, we never really know for sure how far ahead “far ahead” is.
Words are indeed powerful. Just in the past several months we have felt the power of words as we imagine and share ideas for improving the quality of our lives “down the road.” I have already gotten a grant from the Growing Edge fund to create a website and blog for the Down the Road project. This will help us share information about resources with one another. I am also in the process of applying to my old department, the Department of Family Science in the School of Public Health at the University of Maryland, for an intern to help with the maintenance of the site. Once it is established, I hope to establish the Down the Road project as an ongoing ministry of Seekers Church with people volunteering to take on various functions.
Let’s depend on the power of words and keep talking about the years that lie ahead of us. All of us. And for many of us, the years that lie ahead for our parents or even our adult children. The German writer, Goethe said: “Whatever you can do, or dream you can do, begin it. Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it!”
The third reading for today is in Mark and I want to highlight the part where Peter (poor Peter, he’s always getting things wrong) rebukes Jesus for telling the disciples what is going to happen to him. Jesus says he will undergo great suffering, be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed. Peter takes Jesus aside and rebukes him, telling him not to talk like that. Peter is in denial. He doesn’t want Jesus to suffer and die. There are a lot of platitudes we exchange about aging and we talk about things like successful aging, or graceful aging, but really, we don’t want to get older. We don’t even really like to think or talk about it very much, and that keeps us from planning ahead. And God forbid we should talk about death! We really don’t want to think about that. We’re in denial about aging and death. We’re even in denial about being in denial about aging and death. If you google “denial” on the internet, you will run across all kinds of consumer items – coffee mugs, potholders, flowerpots, aprons, etc. – inscribed with this statement about denial: “I’m not in denial. I’m just selective about the reality I accept.” We’re all selective about the reality we accept, but we’re all, hopefully, going to get old and, eventually die. Recently I heard a wonderful TED talk by the the humorist Emily Levine, who has Stage IV lung cancer. Her advice to the rest of us was to “make friends with reality.” I like that the phrase “make friends with reality” so much better than what we usually say, which is “face reality.” Facing reality sounds so much more scary and confrontive. Making friends sounds sociable and comforting. We need to plan ahead even if we are not thrilled about the eventualities we are planning for. There is a Chinese saying that goes: “The best time to plant a tree is 20 years ago. The second-best time is now.” It’s not just older people who need to plan or later life. It’s younger people, too.
Seekers Church is an intentional community whose members are committed to growing together spiritually and working together as the “body of Christ” in the world. Scott Peck has identified eight characteristics of true community:
Inclusivity, commitment and consensus: Members accept and embrace each other, celebrating their individuality and transcending their differences. They commit themselves to the effort and the people involved. They make decisions and reconcile their differences through consensus.
Realism: Members bring together multiple perspectives to better understand the whole context of the situation. Decisions are well-rounded and humble, rather than one-sided and arrogant.
Contemplation: Members examine themselves. They are individually and collectively self-aware of the world outside themselves, the world inside themselves, and the relationship between the two.
A safe place: Members allow others to share their vulnerability, heal themselves, and express who they truly are.
A laboratory for personal disarmament: Members experientially discover the rules for peacemaking and embrace its virtues. They feel and express compassion and respect for each other as fellow human beings.
A group that can fight gracefully: Members resolve conflicts with wisdom and grace. They listen and understand, respect each other’s gifts, accept each other’s limitations, celebrate their differences, bind each other’s wounds, and commit to a struggle together rather than against each other.
A group of all leaders: Members harness the “flow of leadership” to make decisions and set a course of action. It is the spirit of community itself that leads and not any single individual.
A spirit: The true spirit of community is the spirit of peace, love, wisdom and power. Members may view the source of this spirit as an outgrowth of the collective self or as the manifestation of a Higher Will.
I believe that Seekers Church has these attributes for the most part. Of course we are all human and and often fall short of our ideals. But we do try. That is why I have recommited every year since I first became a member of Seekers. I love Seekers. I urge you, this year, as you practice discernment around your recommitment, to consider also committing yourself to supporting, in whatever small or large way you can, the Down the Road Project. One way you can support it is by coming to the meeting after worship today, regardless of how far “down the road” you are right now.
- Listen to Wisdom when you hear it
- Speech is powerful
- Become friends with reality