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Sermon Archives

How We Gather

Rev. Daniel A. Smith
Sun, Sep 24

Texts: Psalm 139 and Matthew 7: 7-11

A few weeks ago, Nancy and I were visiting Washington, D.C. We were there for a few reasons, one of which was to visit my nephew Ben who is a sophomore at George Washington University. We ended up meeting him just a few blocks off campus at, of all places, the Watergate Hotel. Turns out they’ve got a great rooftop bar with gorgeous views of the District and the Potomac. Looking down over the curved building and one-time office complex, one of the waiters pointed out the room on the 6th floor. It was the place from which a wiretapping scandal would rock American politics and transform the way people relate to government and the way we trust our institutions. In today’s world of NSA surveillance of cell phones, Russian meddling in our elections and a potentially catastrophic epidemic of political deception and lying, I couldn’t help but think….how quaint?! How quaint to be sitting at the Watergate and to reminisce about the days when politicians were held accountable. Shocking as Watergate was, consider that the discovery of its multiple abuses of power led not only to impeachment proceedings and the resignation of President Nixon but to the indictment of 69 people, a full 48 of whom were found guilty, including many top administration officials. I wanted a souvenir of my visit so when the check came, I decided to lift the hotel pen the waiter gave me to sign the credit! Apparently, I was not the first one to have this idea. When I looked at the pen later, it said “I stole this pen from the Watergate Hotel!”  Go figure. I’m still not sure whether they meant that as an indictment or as an invitation, especially given how overpriced the cocktails were. If it’s the latter, well then, I am a crook - guilty as charged!

This story came to mind as I was reading our Psalm 139 for today. “O Lord, you have searched me and known me. You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from far away. You search out my path and my lying down, and are acquainted with all my ways.” I’ve never once thought of this passage with reference to any personal or political scandal but the language does have something of an investigative ring to it, don’t you think? It’s almost as though God has opened a case on each of us, has been running some kind of a wiretap on our souls, listening in on all of our secrets since before we were born! At the end of Howard Thurman’s stirring version of Psalm 139 called Thou hast Searched Me and Known Me, he writes: “I cannot escape thy scrutiny! I would not escape thy love!” Can we begin to imagine the power of this scrutinizing love about which the Psalmist writes, a love that knows us inside and out, that never leaves us, that searches for and find us wherever we are, in all our shining glory, in all our shattered brokenness, whether individually or collectively?

Thinking still about our current political context, it seems to me that our country is in desperate need of a full blown spiritual sting operation at this point, à la Psalm 139: something that lays bare and exposes and scrutinizes our national soul, in all our sitting down, in all our rising up; something that is searching out our path, that knows our ways, and that can meanwhile remind us of how fearfully and wonderfully made we have been; that knows us since before the birth of our nation, that knows our stunning triumphs and our gangrene wounds of denial. Call it a truth and reconciliation trial for our American conscience and soul. Or, maybe I’ve just been reading and watching too many political thrillers lately. Either way, let me reign it in a bit here.

We just heard two scriptures that are connected by a common action. Both involve this act of looking for something, of seeking, searching, perhaps even of scrutinizing! Consider the contrasting yet interconnected ways these two scriptures speak a truth of our spiritual lives. In Matthew, we are the ones on lookout—or even on stakeout—for God! We seek. We knock. We ask! We are the ones to initiate the search party for God, which let’s face it, is usually how it works for us, right? We wake up, maybe we are feeling a little empty inside, in need of some spiritual nourishment so we go for a hike, or head to church or a concert, especially if find God in music. Whole books have been written about searching for and finding God, including a best seller from a while back that’s called The Search for God at Harvard! I read it. It’s not bad. And yet Psalm 139 reminds us of an inverse truth that God searches for us and seeks us out too! It flips the script we usually carry, doesn’t it? Have you ever thought that maybe God is seeking us out and knocking on our doors as much, or even more, than we knock on hers?

I’m reminded of a poem by Robert Bly:
Think in ways you've never thought before.
If the phone rings, think of it as carrying a message
Larger than anything you've ever heard,
Vaster than a hundred lines of Yeats.

When someone knocks on the door,
Think that he's about
To give you something large: tell you you're forgiven,
Or that it's not necessary to work all the time,
Or that it's been decided that if you lie down no one will die.
God has searched us and known us, and maybe God already knows us better than we think, already knows our deep need for forgiveness, our need to stop working all the time, our need to find rest. Maybe God knows exactly what we are all searching for already, and maybe its God knocking on our door and not the other way around!

A part of what makes this psalm 139 so compelling is that it speaks of a complete and inescapable exposure of our inner lives. What if someone were wiretapping our individual souls, or that of our country right now, and not in creepy way, but more like a let’s-get-to-the-bottom-of-things way! Can you imagine what they’d hear? Beneath the surface level day-to-day chatter and distraction, beneath all of the ego-driven protection of our self-image, beneath the conditioning to want things that may not be good for us, can we imagine a sounding out of those deep desires we all have for things like freedom, authentic connection and love and intimacy, the desire to express ourselves fully, to share more honestly who we were really are. Indeed, it’s that quintessentially human yearning we all feel to be fully known! The thought of tapping into those desires conjures joy and gladness, yet when we really think about it, it may also make us a bit uneasy and vulnerable. No, God is not the NSA, monitoring our every call or internet search. To be clear, Psalm 139 is not about being found out! It’s about being found, and known and understood in all wonder and complexity!  For most of us, the experience of feeling misunderstood, and for that matter of being unseen, unheard and unknown, can be one of life’s greatest and most dehumanizing pains, especially if we grew up in families or settings where this was too often the case.
The poet Tom Barrett adds some levity here:

If I say the word God, people run away. 
They've been frightened--sat on 'till the spirit cried "uncle." 
Now they play hide and seek with somebody they can't name. 
They know he's out there looking for them, and they want to be found, 
But there is all this stuff in the way. 
I can't talk about God and make any sense, 
And I can't not talk about God and make any sense. 
So we talk about the weather, and we are talking about God.

Whatever we may make of this spiritual hide and seek, whether God is “it” or we are, the fact remains that a lot of people are searching for something more these days, especially given what is going in our world! Climate change and natural disasters, North Korea, an immigration crisis at home and a refugee crisis abroad, a rise in the expressions of hatred and white supremacy, a technological revolution which is fundamentally transforming the way we spend our time together and alone! People are looking for some anchors or meaning— of truth, of justice, some way of staying at once more grounded, more connected, more effectively engaged in the struggle!

Two friends who graduated last year from Harvard Divinity School wrote a report about how millennials and young adults are finding new ways of gathering together, connecting and creating meaningful community, spiritual and otherwise. It’s called How We Gather. They looked at the rise of nonprofits and even businesses like the fitness oriented Soul Cycle or Cross-fit, or the November Project which gathers people to run the stairs every day at the Harvard Stadium, or communities arising out of some Yoga studios, or story telling collectives like the Moth. These initiatives tend to be happening outside of organized religion but they share certain characteristics of ages-old faith communities like ours. Through a series of case studies, the report maps six recurring themes that are “found in mission statements, in manifestos, and on the lips of leaders and participants” and that are part of the so-called “cultural DNA” of these diverse initiatives. These characteristics speak to what millennials and others are looking for. Here’s the list: community, social transformation, creativity, personal transformation, purpose-finding and accountability.

None of the groups they highlight exhibit all of these characteristics. We can imagine, say, how accountability and personal transformation come together to create a powerful bond in exercise groups but there’s also a deep sense of community there as well. They tell a story of how a member of a cross-fit gym in LA lost her mom and knew for sure that she wanted to celebrate her life at the Cross Fit gym because that had become her go-to community. Apparently everyone at the gym agreed to it but they realized they needed to import a rabbi from the local synagogue to officiate because none felt equipped to lead a ritual. Indeed, these communities are young and there is way that these new upstarts need the hard-won wisdom of traditional institutions just as we inevitably need these new communities as partners, many of whom share our values of making the world a better place. Believe it or not, I was recently invited to be part of a local cohort of these millennial community leaders, not as a leader mind you, but as what they are calling an “elder”. I almost lost my lunch when they asked me but I said yes because I find it fascinating.

As I’ve pondered that list of characteristics, I found myself envying the ease with which some communities were able to embody opportunities for creativity, say. It got my wheels spinning – why can’t we get a First Church micro-brewing group going or share yoga together, in addition to our other faith and life groups? Anyone interested in convening? As the same time, my mind started tracing the spiritual antecedents to each of those six themes. And I found myself questioning why the majority of those communities did not yet have social transformation built into their DNA, why the purpose finding was so often oriented towards individualism or even capitalism, why the accountability seemed to work for shared fitness or productivity goals, but did not ask of members more than that. Ultimately, I came away feeling grateful for these new forms of community – our world needs all the help it can get in drawing us people out of tiny bubbles! But it made me all the more grateful for existing forms of spiritual community, like this one, that has built into our DNA every one of those characteristics – community, social transformation, creativity, personal transformation, purpose-finding and accountability. Just listen to the blessings of our ministries later in the service and you’ll see what I mean.

As we regather today for another year together, I wonder first…What are you searching for? Is it a deeper sense of meaning or a higher purpose? Or a place to rest and find hope or healing amidst the chaos of the larger world? It is a community that can hold you accountable to being a more engaged citizen? Is it all of the above?! As we contemplate anew how we gather as a church, and especially how we will regather in our new space, hear the good news of Psalm 139: our loving God is searching for us, has already found us. We cannot escape this scrutiny! We would not escape this love! This is the anchor that can keep us from seeking and not finding. In the coming year, can this wisdom so wonderful inspire us to share our lives more fully with one another, to be more truthful with ourselves and our world, about our days and deeds, our hopes and fears, our deepest joy and silent tears, to quote the hymn we are about to sing? Can we find rest in this knowledge so high? Can we let God’s spirit come and rest in us too? What a coup that would be! Talk about forces conspiring together, literally breathing together, for good. Happy Regathering Sunday, everyone. It’s great to find ourselves together again and to be found by the one who searches us and knows us better than we know ourselves. Amen.

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