XCovid-19: For our live-streamed Holy Week and Easter Services and more info about Staying Connected when we are apart…Read more

Sermon Archives

The Chalice of our Being

Rev. Karen McArthur
Sun, Jul 22

Mark 6: 30-34, 53-56
The Eighth Sunday after Pentecost

Each morning we must hold out
the chalice of our being
to receive, to carry, and give back.
-- Dag Hammarskjöld 1

The lectionary gospel text for this week begins with Jesus taking the disciples away to a deserted place to rest for awhile. They had been so busy coming and going that they had “no leisure even to eat.” Jesus called them to peace and quiet. R&R. Leisure time. Summer vacation. A little serenity in the midst of the chaos.

We could all use some of that right about now, especially after the news from Colorado. If we did follow Jesus to that deserted place, would that be the right thing to do? Or would it be a luxurious escape from the pain and reality of our world that only a few can actually afford? Or would it be taking a break that is essential for our sanity and our health? When is it taking care of ourselves and when is it just avoiding or ignoring the real world?

Friday morning, after the bulletin had been printed, but before the rest of the liturgy had been finalized, we awoke to the news of the horrific attack in Colorado. So much for a light-hearted sermon about taking time for ourselves during the lull of these mid-summer weeks. My thoughts had been going in the direction of how important it is to make time and space for ourselves – when we don’t have to do anything, or know anything – where we can just be for awhile, free from responsibilities, free from stress. Maybe a bit about how we can take care of each other, find a bit of rejuvenation, and arrive back at our work and responsibilities with renewed energy and efficiency.

When the news broke Friday morning, preachers scrambled. Those who wrote their sermons earlier in the week were starting over. Some of my colleagues wondered aloud about whether people were sticking with their original plans, or choosing other texts. What words could we offer? Soothing words of healing? Or prophetic calls to justice? Could we speak words of truth to power? Or try to identify root causes of the violence? What were our leaders saying? What would we say? What would Jesus say?

I had already chosen the Mark passage – which I remembered followed immediately after last week’s gospel passage. Last week Terry had told me that he was preaching on the Ephesians text because he couldn’t really imagine dealing with the graphic violence of the story of Herod’s birthday party-gone-bad, during which Herod had ordered the killing of John the Baptist, complete with the gruesome and memorable display of his head on a platter. So the opening words of this week’s gospel text suddenly took on new meaning.

Immediately after the disciples told Jesus about what happened to his good friend John the Baptist -- the one who had preached that compelling message of repentance, and then had baptized Jesus in the Jordan River, empowering him for his ministry – after the disciples broke the news of John’s politically motivated murder to Jesus, he said to them, “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest awhile.”

So this deserted place invitation was not just taking a break – this was an attempt to drop everything and get away to a safe place to grieve, and to be together, and to reflect on the trauma and the tragedy and all that was happening around them. It’s not easy when two worlds clash: a world of healing and feeding and sharing against a world of power and domination and violence.

So the disciples left town. But no sooner had they pushed off the shore, even without CNN and 24/7 news cycles and twitter and facebook, the crowds found them again and wouldn’t leave them alone. Rather than turning the people away, Mark tells us that Jesus had compassion on them, and taught them many things.

Now you may have noticed that the gospel reading includes verses 30-34 and then continues with verses 53-56. The first thing I do when verses get skipped is to see what got left out and why. In this case, it’s because the familiar stories get read at other times during the year. After Jesus teaches the crowds, we have the feeding of the 5,000 men (not counting women and children) with five loaves and two fish. After that, Jesus succeeds in getting away by himself to pray while the disciples got some “alone time” in their boat. However, a windstorm came up, and the rowing disciples were getting even more exhausted, so Jesus walked on the water, calmed the storm and calmed the disciples too. All in a day’s work, I guess. After these two miracles, we come to verse 53 and the rest of our reading for today. The boat lands at Gennesaret, and everyone is bringing every sick person they can find to Jesus for healing. The need for teaching and feeding and healing doesn’t ever take a vacation.

It seems to me that there are different types of situations that need healing and come with being human: there are sicknesses and injuries, old age and life-long conditions. But there is also the need for healing and recovery from the effects of violence, like the tragedy of Herod’s birthday party or the rampage at the Aurora movie theater. Are all of these needs for healing just an inevitable part of human life? Or can we do something about them? Is random violence something that is somehow inevitable? Or is it a result of some flaw in our society, something that we might be able to fix?

We know all too well that this is all too common. After the Jonesboro, Arkansas school shootings in 1997, local folk singer Cheryl Wheeler wrote an amazingly poignant song. A couple of years later, after the Columbine shootings, it was played repeatedly on the radio, like every hour. She starts out like this, in a sort of chant:

Maybe it’s the movies, maybe it’s the books
Maybe it’s the bullets, maybe it’s the real crooks
Maybe it’s the drugs, maybe it’s the parents
Maybe it’s the colors everybody’s wearin’ …
… Maybe it’s the Bible, maybe it’s the lack,
Maybe it’s the music, maybe it’s the crack …

She continues on and on and on through dozens of suggested causes, rhythmic and rhyming, finally ending the monotony of her litany with the conclusion that if it were up to her, she’d take away the guns.2 The clarity of her message caught some traction. But that time, and every time, it seems, individual liberty won out over public safety. And this time as well, the NRA is counting on our short attention span to let this issue blow over.

What is the role of our community leaders in this? Former Colorado Senator Gary Hart called on all leaders to show some leadership, not only politicians and pastors, but also the leaders of the entertainment industry. We all need to explore whether we have a larger role in this discussion. Our newspaper carried a Q&A column about the shootings. When asked, “Was there any link between the shooting and the movie?”, the column noted

“In The Dark Knight Rises, a masked villain leads a murderous crew into a packed football stadium and wages an attack involving guns and explosives. But violent attacks on the public by villains are key components of most superhero movies.”3

So I guess there’s no connection because it’s so common? Holy Retroactive Reasoning, Batman! “But Mom, of course I know it’s not real.” All it takes is one person who doesn’t quite understand that it’s fantasy.

The statistics are pretty eye-opening. The number of guns per person in this country is by far the highest in the world – with 89 guns per 100 residents. Second and third place go to Serbia and Yemen in the 50s. Americans are 40 times more likely than Canadians or the British to be killed by guns. For some in our country, the answer is fewer guns. While for others, it’s more guns, so that everyone can protect themselves. And we remain divided … on this and just about every issue.

However, Michael Shank, US Vice President of the Institute for Economics and Peace has suggested that even though Colorado makes it very easy for anyone to purchase guns, the root cause of mass violence is not just about access to weapons and ammunition. He insists that we also consider the shame and guilt that arise in what he calls “highly unequal societies.” “America has the highest income inequality rates in the rich world. That correlates strongly with high rates of social-health problems, from homicide and violent crime to mental illness and drug addiction. We must acknowledge that basic human needs for meaning, connectedness, security, recognition and autonomy are real and worth addressing by policymakers. When they are threatened or unmet, conflict often arises and can, if aided by easy access to weapons, turn violent.4

This whole theme of domination and violence is hardly new. When I put together the liturgy, I had already included the Dag Hammarskjöld quote about the chalice, which I found in our hymnal. The image of the chalice seemed to convey refreshment and celebration – a companion of taking time for ourselves. I knew he was Swedish, but I hadn’t realized that he was a diplomat, an economist, and the Secretary-General of the United Nations in the 1950s.

After the shootings, the idea of the chalice reminded me of a book I had read some 20 years ago, The Chalice and the Blade. It turns out that it’s been translated into 25 languages since. Social scientist Riane Eisler runs through a history of many millennia, looking at civilizations and cultures, and sees a pattern of two ways of organizing societies. The oldest way, according to her theory, is characterized by partnerships and cooperation. Property is owned by the community. The central religious image is of a woman giving birth, and the power to give life is revered. She calls this the way of the chalice.

Then, around 7,000 years ago, nomadic groups of warriors began invading these civilizations. These new groups valued power and domination and celebrated the blade. Property was owned and controlled by the most powerful, who took care of the less powerful. The power to take life was most valued.

Since then, she sees the ebb and flow of these two kinds of cultures. She sees hope in that the dominators’ ideals did not completely eliminate the ideals of partnerships. She hears hope in the voice of the prophet Isaiah, or the teachings of Jesus. In the Renaissance or the Enlightenment, she finds the power of the creativity and the blossoming of the arts. In the Dark Ages and various wars, she sees the power of dominance vying for deeper control. Our stories and our history tell of the struggles between these two cultures: Adam and Eve, Jacob and Esau, Jesus and his disciples vs. Herod and Pilate, the destruction of art and education at the hands of dictators. The promise that the meek will inherit the earth, she suggests, is not the meek dominating the strong, but rather the way of the peacemakers and their new, old ways coming back to prominence. “What is right and wrong in a dominator society is not the same as what is right and wrong in a partnership society.” 5 Two worlds. And a choice. Which one is ours? Where are we “at home” and where are we the sojourners and strangers?

One of the places that I have gone to get away is Horton Center, the United Church of Christ’s camp up in the White Mountains. There, children and teens find a sacred place to be themselves in a community where they are loved and valued, away from their regular routines. For many it’s a first time away from home, where they live in the simplicity of camp in a cabin with ten others and their one duffel bag of belongings. It’s a time of fun and games and hiking and sharing, campfires and the magic of camp, independence and community. At the end of each day, the campers and staff gather in a “Shalom Circle” around the camp’s Peace Pole before heading off to bed.

At the end of camp, the campers gather for one last Shalom Circle before parents arrive to take them home. It’s hard to leave. I remember one staff member telling the story of having to leave the mountain and go back to “the real world” of school and work and responsibility. But, he realized, that’s backwards. When you’re back home, he told them, remember the mountain. This, he said, is the real world: a world of God’s presence, and amazing sunsets, and community, and discovering new things about ourselves, where there’s enough for all.

So, which is it for us? Which is our real world? Is it the world of harsh reality? A world of competition and danger? A world where there is too much to do, too many needs, too much stuff? Or is it another world? And then, when we take time away from our responsibilities, from this “real world” of ours, how do we use that time away, whether it’s a few moments, or a week or two, to reclaim our center, to find “the chalice of our being?” How do we do our part to usher back the world of the chalice, where what we need is shared among all who need it, where the power to create life is valued over the power to take it away, where there is true peace and transparent prosperity?

There is much to do. But for now, we sit in mourning for the senseless violence that has claimed too many young lives – we mourn their deaths, we mourn the deaths of all who have lost their lives to gun violence, and we mourn the loss of so many young imaginations held hostage by the ideals of a world of dominance and power. Today we mourn, but tomorrow there is work to do. May we find ourselves refreshed and renewed and ready to listen for God’s call to us, and, in the words of a Jewish colleague looking ahead to next weekend’s commemoration of Tisha B’Av, “may we forever choose kindness, justice and compassion over prejudice, violence and death.” 6 Amen.

1 Dag Hammarskjöld, Markings
2 Cheryl Wheeler, If It Were Up to Me, 1997.
3 New Bedford Standard-Times, July 21, 2012, page A6.
4 http://www.huffingtonpost.com/michael-shank/why-gun-control-debate-do_b_...
5 Riane Eisler, The Chalice and the Blade: Our History, Our Future, HarperSanFrancisco, 1987, p. 98.
6 Stuart Forman, Jewish Holiday Tisha B’Av Commemorates Tragedy, in New Bedford Standard-Times, July 21, 2012, page B7.

Looking for ways to support our community during this unprecedented time of need? The Missions and Social Justice Committee has compiled and vetted a short list of organizations looking for assistance to aid in their work in the COVID-19 response...

In response to the Coronavirus outbreak, the Shelter has expanded into Sage Hall to allow for greater social distancing, and is now open to guests around the clock, thanks to additional funding from the Commonwealth. They would very much welcome...