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Sermon Archives

What's the Tide?

Rev. Daniel A. Smith
Sun, Jul 31

Texts: Luke 12: 13-21, Psalm 107: 1-9, Acts 17: 16-33

After so many speeches these past two weeks of political conventions, some stunning, others not so much, I was reminded of the great speech we just heard that the apostle Paul gives to those ever politically-minded, ancient philosophers in Athens. Our text from Acts is otherwise known as Paul’s speech at the Areopagus. The Areopagus, or Mars Hill, was the high court of Athens, a place where public hearings and trials took place. It was also where the Athenians could be exposed to new ideas and hear the first century version of a guest lecture from a visiting scholar. Did you notice the, albeit skeptical, curiosity of the Athenians, as they were considering what they had thus far hear of Paul’s ideas? “It sounds rather strange to us, so we would like to know what it means.” It’s almost refreshing, isn’t it, given the way our own politics in this country have so devolved. Can we even imagine and remember that art of curiosity, genuine conversation and debate in our public discourse? Even after Paul is done, those who are not convinced say, “we will hear you again about this.”

What's more, rather than cutting down his interlocutors, Paul builds them up, saying he’s seen how religious they are, albeit in a different way, what with altars to unknown Gods. He engages them on their own terms, quoting their own poets, and ultimately he shares his own faith and conviction, with respect.

I wonder how many of you heard Rev. William Barber’s electrifying speech at the Democratic National Convention, earlier on Thursday evening. I can imagine Barber may have felt a little like Paul, well outside the context of his local church, with a diverse audience of millions.
He introduced himself as ”a preacher” and a “theologically conservative liberal evangelical biblicist.”  “I know it may sound strange,” he said, but” I'm a conservative because I work to conserve a divine tradition that teaches us to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God.” He went on: 

I've had the privilege of traveling the country with the Reverend Dr. James Forbes, and Reverend Dr. Traci Blackmon, Sister Simone Campbell as we are working together in the revival and calling for a revolution of values. And as we travel the country, we see things. That is why I'm so concerned, about those that say so much—about what God says so little, while saying so little—about what God says so much.  And so in my heart, I'm troubled. And I'm worried about the way faith is cynically used by some to serve hate, fear, racism and greed.

We need to heed the voice of the Scriptures. We need to listen to the ancient chorus in which “deep calls unto deep.”  The prophet Isaiah cries out, “What I'm interested in seeing you doing, says the Lord, as a  nation is, ‘Pay people what they deserve’  ‘Share your food with the hungry.’ Do this and then your nation shall be called a repairer of the breach.” 

By the way, Rev. Dr. Traci Blackmon is our own UCC Minister for Justice and Witness, and Rev Barber and she will be leading their moral revival here in Boston tomorrow night at Bethel AME church in Jamaica Plain. There’s more info in your bulletins about that if you are interested in attending.

But given what I heard clergy say at the Republican convention and then hearing what Rev. Barber said, I felt he was trying to address a tension in the collective soul of the American people. With a reference to our reading from Luke about brother vying over their inheritance, we might well wonder whether our inheritance of our religious tradition is being divided! We might wonder, to what extent has our own God become unknown to us? For that matter, to what extent are we experiencing God’s presence in the midst of these deeply trying times for our country?

In these summer months, we may well be inclined to leave the politics aside and find spiritual refreshment and God’s presence in nature alone. A few weeks ago, I spent a couple of days kayak camping off the mid-Maine Coast. A friend and I have done this every summer for at least ten years. Paddling a few miles out, setting up camp on a small island that we can call our own, kicking back, soaking in the beauty and natural rhythms all around us has become an annual reset button for me. The time never ceases to fill my soul, like the tidal waters in Muscongus Bay, which suck vast amounts of ocean water out at low tide and replenish them fully at each and every high tide! I’ll admit that this year the restorative nature of this trip could not have come at a better time. Each year we have to be mindful of what the tides are for our trip, depending on where we are putting in and coming to shore. Beyond the practical necessity, I’ve come to wonder as well— What is the tide of my soul? Is it way out, where the waters are depleted, or is it high and full?

Allow me to explain more where I'm coming from.  A few years ago, a friend suggested that I pick up a copy of The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius.  Born in Spain in 1491, St. Ignatius is credited with founding the Jesuit order of the Roman Catholic Church.  Based on the fruit of
Ignatius' own meditation and practice, his exercises, first published in1533, have since offered Jesuits and Christians of every stripe a
profound method for deepening their spiritual life and for becoming more mindful of God's presence in everyday life.  Mind you, these
exercises are not for beginners. The book is a practical guide for going
on an intensive four-week retreat.  Despite the “Don’t try this at home” warning from colleagues, I’ve managed to try the 30 days of practice. Even without the retreat, the book suggests some brilliant stand-alone insights into the spiritual life.

In a section of the Exercises called, "Rules for the Discernment of
Spirits," Ignatius observes that there is an ongoing interior movement within the human soul, a movement that swings back and forth from what he calls times of spiritual consolation to times of spiritual
desolation.  I’ve mentioned this to some of you in 1:1’s in my office. Though he makes no mention of rhythms or tides of the soul, the analogy can help us in getting a handle on this Ignatian insight.  When our spiritual tides are high, we are in a place
of consolation.  High tide, if you will, occurs when we are, and I
quote, "inflamed with the love of our creator." It’s when we know that God is our only richness, not money things, nor lesser forms of security. The time, or the tide,
of consolation occurs when we are inspired to shed tears of joy, hope or
even sorrow.  Consolation, he writes, is "any increase of faith, hope and charity."  It is when our lives "attract to heavenly things," when we feel that our lives are flowing and even overflowing with God's presence.  Most of us know the feeling, right, even if you have to hearken back to when a child
was born, when you first fell in love, or to an encounter with an especially moving work of art or music. Desolation, then, or the low tide of the spirit, is the opposite of
consolation.  It’s a deep ebb of the soul.  It is, as Ignatius writes, a "turmoil of mind" and "an inclination to low and earthly things."  Desolation is when we feel our better selves being sucked out by fear, anxiety, when we feel like we’ve lost our mooring.  The times, or tides, of desolation, he goes on, occur "when a
soul will find itself completely apathetic, tepid, sad, and separated as it were, from it’s Creator and Lord." 

Ignatius instructs us that we
should never make a big behavioral change or take a new course action
when our souls are ebbing toward desolation. Rather than taking any rash action, or
worse yet, pretending that our lives are always lived at high tide, Ignatius advised that it is best to be present and patient in one's times of desolation. He suggests we try to recall, through prayer and meditation, a recent time of consolation, thereby looking forward the next one. 

Conversely, when you are experiencing a tide of consolation, in addition
to taking pleasure in one's fullness, one ought to remain humble and
spend some time anticipating the next desolation, as if to
store up some strength and courage for whenever those low tides return, which they inevitably will. These are the tides of the soul. Our
awareness of God's presence is, as naturally as the sea, always ebbing
and flowing from our consciousness.  Sometimes we have it and sometimes
we don't. 

The tidal flats of Cape Cod are an amazing sight to behold.  The tidal
range— which refers to the differential in feet of water between low and
high tide— of Cape Cod Bay is a full 10 feet.  And
though I've never been a bit further up the coast to Nova Scotia, I understand that at the Bay of
Fundy the tidal range is 53 feet, the largest in the world!  Imagine
bobbing in a small boat on water that is deeper than a five-story
building, and in exactly the same place in less than six hours . . . you
can walk on the ocean floor.  Now that is a low tide. But the great
thing about tides is that no matter how low you go, the high tides will
always return. 

Our Psalmist seems to know this and seem to be describing something similar…

Some wandered in desert wastes,
finding no way to an inhabited town; 
5 hungry and thirsty,
their soul fainted within them. 
6 Then they cried to the LORD in their trouble,
and God delivered them from their distress; 
7 they were led by a straight way,
until they reached an inhabited town. 
8 Let them thank the LORD for such steadfast love,
for such wonderful works to humankind. 
9 For God satisfies the thirsty,
and the hungry God fills with good things. 

Paul knows this as well…

26 From one ancestor God made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and he allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live, 27 so that they would search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him— though indeed he is not far from each one of us. 28 For ‘In him we live and move and have our being’; as even some of your own poets have said…

After two conventions, and many speeches directed at two very different ideas of where lies the heart and soul of this nation, we might feel a collective tug. Some may well be feeling a boost of spiritual consolation, an increase of faith. Others may be wondering if our collective soul is being sucked away from us, by the stoking of fear, hatred, racism and xenophobia. I ask you, what is the tide of your soul on this Sunday morning? And what is the tide of the soul of our nation? Those Ignatian instructions for staying on the path toward consolation may well prove essential as we make our way through summer and into fall.

I often share with small groups, when doing an icebreaker, the following poem by the Polish poet Wislawa Symborska. It’s called:

A Few Words on the Soul

We have a soul at times.
No one's got it non-stop,
for keeps.

Day after day,
year after year
may pass without it.

Sometimes
it will settle for a while
only in childhood's fears and raptures
Sometimes only in astonishment
that we are old.

It rarely lends a hand
in uphill tasks,
like moving furniture,
or lifting luggage,
or going miles in shoes that pinch.

It usually steps out
whenever meat needs chopping
or forms have to be filled.

For every thousand conversations
it participates in one,
if even that,
since it prefers silence.

Just when our body goes from ache to pain,
it slips off-duty.

It's picky,
it doesn't like seeing us in crowds.
Our hustling for a dubious advantage
and creaky machinations make it sick.

Joy and sorrow
aren't two different feelings for it.
It attends us
only when the two are joined.

We can count on it
when we're sure of nothing
and curious about everything.

Among the material objects
it favors clocks with pendulums
and mirrors, which keep on working
even when no one is looking.

It won't say where it comes from
or when it's taking off again,
though it's clearly expecting such questions.

We need it
but apparently
it needs us
for some reason too.

I ask again— What is the tide of your soul right now? And I invite you to ask each other this question, even today over lemonade, even if you are a first time visitor. I invite you to share in solidarity wherever you are because, at the end of the day, we are all in these ever-changing waters together. Together, even thinking back to those speeches, we must recall our high and consoling tides. Together, preferably with a healthy dose of humor, we must acknowledge our desolation and still prepare ourselves for the lows that are yet to come. Together, we can remember that we are all held in that ocean of God’s love, with our faith as an anchor! In the hymn we are about to hear as well, we can remember that God’s gracious powers, and nothing but them, can give us confidence, gratitude and joy, even in our suffering, even in our wonder, even in our waiting, come what may! Amen.

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