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Sermon Archives

I and Thou

Rev. Daniel A. Smith
Sun, Apr 19

Text:  Psalm 8 and Luke 24: 13-35


Awhile back, I found myself exchanging text messages with Kate Layzer.  I’m a one-thumb texter, and a pretty fast one at that, but it means I make more than my share of “damn-you-auto-correct” mistakes.  Ironically, we were trying to find a time to get together.   I thought I texted: “in meetings all day” and hit send.  My phone auto-corrected it to say “in beatings all day”!  Fortunately, it rarely feels like that, at least for me.  Kate knows this. Still, every so often, Kate will keep the joke running ask me: and how many beatings do you have today?


For better or worse, meetings have developed a bad rap in our culture. Its no wonder given the sheer volume that most of us have either enjoyed or endured -- breakfast meetings, lunch meetings, committee meetings, family meetings, planning meetings, town meetings, staff meetings, house meetings, parent-teacher meetings, church meetings, and the list goes on.  It’s like the old joke about the CEO who says, “We are going to continue having these meetings, every day, until I find out why no work is getting done.” Do we know the feeling? Entire industries have cropped up and fortunes have built around people’s desire to avoid unnecessary meetings. Why meet, when so much of what needs to be done can be accomplished via phone, email, conference call or text?  I’ll save the digital age sermon for another Sunday, but I do want to talk a bit today about how we understand meetings, for better or worse.  Our story from Luke’s gospel, about the Risen Christ’s meeting the disciples on the road to Emmaus, is helpful here.


First, the Jewish writer and philosopher Martin Buber reminds us that “All real living is meeting.”   If only, right?  If only all those appointments and interactions and transactions and conferences amounted to “real living”!  This line comes from his classic book “I and Thou” wherein he describes two primary ways that people engage the world.  Bear with me as I try to unpack his brilliant and often poetic philosophy of relationship, first articulated by Buber in 1923. There’s what he calls the “I-it” attitude or way of being and the “I-Thou” way. We cannot but live at the level of I-it. This is where we experience what and who is around us a limited, finite objects, often relating them to what is useful to us in our daily living.  We can have “I-it” relationships with nature, with art, with all kinds of people, even people we love.  Buber doesn’t judge us for this. That's just the way things are, at a certain level.  The fact is we go through our days carrying ideas about others that are bounded by our experience.  Anytime we say what another person means to us or for us, we are basically making them an object of our description, and so limiting them to roles or functions. We are constantly having these limiting experiences of one another and the world, wherein we interpret information, we engage in transactions, we order our lives based on expectations of roles and functions, we enter into events and activities and yes, meetings.  We might see Pauline and we think cookies or welcome. We see Peter and we think organ but of course Pauline and Peter are so much more. 


For Buber, the real living happens, and the real relationship and genuine “meeting” occurs when we can recognize, albeit in fleeting glimpses, a potential for what he calls an I-Thou level of relationship.  Buber suggests a way of relating beyond this mere I-it experience. As “its” we are constantly placed in boxes, often related to this or that function.  But sometimes, we don’t merely experience, but encounter others as something more than the sum of their parts, something that points to and participated a Thou that is boundless in mystery, potential, complexity.  Thou is the realm of the eternal, the divine, indeed of God and we know this Thou, not merely through limited experience of something outside us, but through relationship that connects the unfathomable depths of our beings with that of others and God.


Our Psalmist seems to get it. “O God, our Sovereign, how majestic is your name in all the earth!  You have set your glory above the heavens.”  As in, God is a Thou that is out of reach, above the heavens and so beyond understanding.  The psalmist writes:  “When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established; what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?”  Indeed, the King James version makes the point more clearly in words that are engraved over the entrance to Emerson Hall in Harvard Yard  – “What is man that Thou art mindful?”   Interesting that’s over the philosophy department and not religion, but I digress. 


The psalmist suggests an I-thou encounter, here through an experience of nature.  The moon and stars are not ends in themselves but instead they are means of mediating and pointing to a deeper relationship that begins not in mere observation but in awe and in wonder. What’s more, when the Psalmist sees the Thou that is within and beyond the moon and stars, the relationship comes back to the psalmist, and leaves the psalmist with a potentially transformative question!  Who am I that Thou art mindful of me?  Why am I here? What is my purpose in this grand scheme?


We know these different levels when we experience nature do we not.  On the one hand, we constantly use nature to eat, to clothe us or give us shelter.  We engage “it” in these ways.  And yet, when we consider and engage nature, or creation, as a “thou” and even more, when we let nature’s thou engage us, how much more majestic, more beautiful, more fragile it becomes, and how much more caring and aware are we towards it!  I invite you to remember this distinction between I-it experience and I-thou encounter when you go out this afternoon to enjoy this Earth Day! But I want to come back briefly to our text from Emmaus.  Because, for some, I think relating to God through amazing experiences of, and even encounters with, nature, is a starting point for how they consider their spirituality.  How many times have heard people say I experience God through nature, and I worship God in nature.  No doubt, there are many doing that this very morning, gorgeous as it is. But what of God we experience through people, and that one person in particular, our rabbi Jesus!


This past Lent, we had many meetings!  At 10 am, on Tuesday nights with the young families, or on Wednesday nights when 20-25 of us would gather the parsonage.  To be sure, some of these meetings were merely experiences, but what distinguished this Lent for me and I know for others I’ve spoken to, is that there was something deeper, richer, more transformative.  These meetings became encounters. Our hearts began burning within us as we opened scripture together, as we listened deeply to one another’s questions, doubts, fears and as we opened a space to hold it all.  Together, we wondered “who is Jesus Christ?” for us today? 


When we began these conversations, Jesus may have started for some of us as an It, an object of study, or curiosity, a historical figure of great interest whose moral teachings we admire!  But as we discovered the ways our story reminds us of his genuine humanity, his suffering which was balanced by a seemingly boundless humility and mystery and faithfulness, some of us came to encounter something more than human, something sacred (perhaps) even divine, something beyond the limits of our human understanding.  What’s more, as we shared our own stories and trials with one another, we came to see our own lives, in their bottomless complexity, as held in this sacred light as well.  Our fleeting “experiences” of one another as “its” – Oh, that’s the person who sits over there, or that’s a newcomer, or that’s someone I’ve known forever -- became chances for us to see ourselves and one another anew, as complex, storied, open, mysterious vessels in a process of ongoing spiritual growth and questioning.  We had in some of those meetings what I think Buber would call a taste of genuine I-thou encounters.  Some said they came to see Christ and to see God, in and through each other, in and through our conversations, in and through our community.  I believe it was a taste of something like the transformation of relationship that happened on that Emmaus road. 


There’s so much that could be said of our extraordinary gospel passage, but for today I just want to lift up on one piece.  Did you notice, how at first, the disciples couldn’t see him, or tell it was him.  They took him for “another stranger in Jerusalem.”  This strikes me as an I-it experience.  They unwittingly limit his presence.  They judge him at first, and don’t let him in.  And who could blame them. They were managing their own lives, trying to keep it moving, trying to keep on walking that road, despite their sadness and grief about the traumatic events of recent days, about the violence of the world.  They may have been encountering each other there in that tender and traumatized place, still carrying their burdens of fear or guilt for falling asleep in his hour of need. But at first, they entirely miss that the presence of God’s love, in a hungry and human form, was walking right there beside him.  But then, when he breaks bread, blesses it, give thanks, the Risen Christ is revealed to them, as a companion, one who is still with them just as he had been.  This is the moment, when God breaks in.  God opens their eyes to see not just a stranger, but the presence of eternal love in their midst.  The encounter transforms them! They can’t wait to go and tell the others, and Peter, poor Peter, about what they’ve seen.  This is what happens when humanity encounters those I-Thou moments.  Something larger breaks in on us!  And it’s not just that they saw him but he saw them, sat with them, stayed with them for a moment, understood their hunger, their questions, the depth of their humanity. 


When we are fortunate to have such sacred encounters, when it feels like a meeting is more than the sum of its parts, whenever two or three gathered, say, we can’t but feel our lives changed by them, we can’t but feel some newfound purpose or depth or freedom to want to love and care for the world and others not as “its” but as channels of divine mystery and beauty and love. We can’t but want to respond, deeply and profoundly.  For those disciples, they chose to move on from their encounter to be all about building up a a new community of radically inclusive, generous, forgiving and loving relationship.  They chose to be about creating the meeting places where the sometime heartbreakingly honest and real living happens.  And now we too, through the seasons of our church life together, are about much the same sacred work of building ever deeper connection!


Whether in our relationship with Creation, or with Christ, with our neighbors here in this community of love, the invitation is to be open, not merely to experiences, but to genuine encounters with that which we cannot and would not want to limit. It’s an invitation to stay radically open, to the stranger in our midst, to those we think we know, to remember they too, even our enemies, are potential channels of God’s unending mystery and love.  It’s an invitation to open our eyes and our pores to encounters with all of creation, with the beasts of the fields, the birds of the air, and the fish of the sea, and to say with the psalmist – who am I that Thou are mindful?, to see our lives in constant relationship with that majesty of God’s presence in our midst.  At the creation of life, and at that ‘second creation’ that our tradition calls Easter, we are invited to understand ourselves and our world as an ongoing matrix of mysterious and loving relationship that lies beneath the surface of our every day experience.  From I-it to I-Thou.  This is the call of the spiritual life.   


That deeper layer is always there, prompting, inviting, coaxing us to leave open our minds and hearts that the Spirit’s love may freely flow and turn our too often I-it world upside down!   Remember too, that when we ourselves can be so open, we too will be seen by others as infinite and boundless expressions of the divine. 


I wonder, if we could let that sense of ourselves being channels of God’s infinity mystery and limitless love, how it could free us from labels and fears that hold us back, free us to more fully embrace all of life’s meetings and encounters.


Ok.  Enough with the poetry and philosophy!   For today, maybe its enough to know that there are strangers are all around us, in our communities, in your pew, and in our natural world, and it’s on us to meet them, and to be met by them, to engage in the face to face, spirit to spirit encounters.  It’s these meetings, that stretch us ever beyond our limits, ever more to embrace our our humanity and to live into our divinity, these are the meeting that tell us what real living is all about.   May it be so, here in this place, and in our ongoing journeys on the road of life and faith. Amen.

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