- Justice – September 23, 2021
A sermon by Rev. Dr. Rebecca Pugh
I want to tell you the story of a martyr, and then talk about how his courage helped save the world.
Guy M. Bradley was a kid who grew up poor. His family moved from Chicago to the Everglades in the 1870’s, looking for opportunities. His father was part of the famous barefoot mailmen, working for years to deliver people’s letters. Guy loved spending time outside, and knew where everything was. He also worked as a postman, and then took up guiding bird hunters at age 15, as a way to supplement his family’s income. At that time, the mid 1880’s, there was a thriving business of killing breeding birds and using their feathers, their wings, even their whole bodies to decorate hats. Guy was a part of that.
Until he wasn’t. There was one day when the egrets were on their nests in a colony, many birds, many nests, and Guy led hunters there. The hunters killed the adult birds, skinned them and left their insides behind. The babies were in the nests, waiting to get fed. Guy looked at the baby birds in the nests, the flayed adult birds, and the whole scene there.
He had a change of heart. In Greek we call that “Metanoia”, and it is where you stop, in the middle of something sometimes, and shift your life.
When Jesus said for us to pray “Thy Kingdom come”, as the King James Bible has translated it, he wants us to put ourselves in a similar space, where we are ready for a change. Because the Kingdom of God is a space where the people, the animals, the plants, life on earth, are mutual and sharing. The Kingdom is a place of equality.
If you go back to the Aramaic language, which is the language Jesus spoke, the word for Kingdom of Malkthah. It has the same roots as the words in ancient Aramaic for the Divine Mother. It’s about ancient blessings, healings, and almost unnamable work for peace and change and healing.
Krister Stendahl says it so well. He says, It is striking that Jesus, who could have chosen out of hundreds of concepts out of his Jewish tradition or trillions of ideas out of his divinity in its infinity: of all the crazy religious ideas that could be percolating, Jesus centers his message on something that he calls the Basilea, the Malktha, the Malkuth, the Kingdom. Mending creation is the job of Jesus.
The emphasis in the center of our central prayer: on mending, healing, peacemaking.
So back to Guy Bradford. I want, I wish, that I could tell you that everything went easily for him and easily for the birds on their nests, and he lived happily with his change, with his metanoia. But this was what happened to Guy. He took a job with the Audubon Society of Florida, to protect birds, instead of lead hunters to their nests. At about the same time, it became illegal in Florida to do this kind of hunting, because the numbers of egrets was down to 5% of what the egret population had been 30 years before. It was 1900, and the Lacey Act passed, restricting the transporting of fish, plants, and wildlife. Guy wrote to the Florida Audubon Society, after the law passed, saying that he saw that hunting birds on nests was a “cruel and hard calling, notwithstanding being unlawful”. And so he got a job, instead, being a game warden, and deputy sheriff, to oversee the everglades and help others stop hunting migrating birds.
Five years later, he was thirty five, and it was the height of the egret breeding season, the ibis breeding season, the heron, the spoonbill. Guy was working his job, was earning $35 a year. One day he came across three people poaching birds, and as he tried to arrest them, they shot him.
You would have thought that this might have been the end of it: the death of a postman turned deputy sheriff in Florida in 1905. But there was a group in Boston, organizing to protect migratory birds from the hat trade, and they would not let the death of Guy Bradley go. Minna Hall was a spinster, an activist, and a hard worker in the world of organizing in 1900. Harriet Hemenway was her cousin, an anti-racist, and a community organizer at the same time. When Guy Bradley died, they galvanized the community. They organized 900 women to in Boston protest his wrongful death in Florida, and to raise his vision to the world. They took it to the senate and the congress, and Senator George McLean of Connecticut, and Congressional Representative John Weeks of Massachusetts, passed the Weeks-McLean act, which in turn became the Migratory Bird Treaty in 1918, effectively ending hunting of migratory birds.
All this because Guy Bradley had a change of heart when he saw what was going wrong. And because Minna Hall and Harriet Hemenway mourned his death and said “No more,” and asked people to join. All this because Jesus gave a prayer with Malkthah in the middle of it, “thy kingdom come” in the middle of itk, and called the people who prayed it to work for justice.
The Kingdom of God is a place where we find each other: where we care about each other’s lives. It is where we care about the economy of the planet, and long for it to be equitable. It is where we care about the life of a postman in Florida, and we care about the ecosystem of colony of birds’ nests.
It is so curious to me that the ibis and the heron and the egret often flock together. They have been roosting here in the marsh here in Ipswich too, near the beginning of Great Neck. And they are wildly different colors, with different voices, different habits, though they all are water birds. But they clump together to take care of each other, while they are nesting, as they get ready to migrate. They look to each other for courage. In their diversity, they need each other.
I think this is what Jesus would have had us work for, when he said for us to pray “Thy Kingdom Come”. I think this is what he meant when he said that the malkthah is what is God’s, along with the power and the glory.
It is what we pray for, work for, vigil for, believe in. It is more important now than ever.
In conclusion, I wrote a set of new words to the tune my cousin wrote for her wedding this week. My cousin is Heather Goff, artist living on Martha’s Vineyard. She wrote a love song, a round. And I put the words to psalm 46 to it, thinking, in Jesus’ brilliance and Jewishness, he just might have been starting with Psalm 46, whole cloth, to teach about the Kingdom, the malkthah, the holy justice of God.
Put down your shield, your spear, your rod.
Be still and know that I am God.
My river flows to make you glad.
- Invitation to Dance – September 12, 2021
Rev. Dr. Rebecca Pugh
My friends Yael and Sherri got married during the pandemic. It was a zoom affair mostly, with a rabbi in a big open space and the two of them, and their relatives in 9 states and 17 countries, including a beloved aunt and uncle in Israel, up in the middle of the night zooming from their living room, he in a bow tie and she in a silk dress, dressed for a wedding, with a plate of beautiful food in their hands.
Sherri is Canadian and this was her first time back in the states since they got married a year ago. They decided to have a few of us over to their porch, and I mean a few, like four of us, lined up eight feet apart, out in the wind, outdoors. In Canada, people don’t get together yet. So they were not used to it. And Sherry kept going inside to get things, kept standing up and sitting down and getting back up again. She was worried about the pandemic. And you could see she was trying to reset, to enjoy these lovely people who loved them and hadn’t seen them.
And then someone’s phone rang. And Sherri, to everyone’s huge surprise, put her hands up in the air and started dancing to the ring tone, to the phone, as if it were an Israeli folk dance. She looked amazing, and Yael started dancing too. They were dancing, joyful, in the heat of the pandemic, to the music the universe had given them. It was a cell phone. And they made it into a symphony with their dance. The rest of us, lined up on the porch, all started smiling.
And then Yael pulled out a recording of a young adult team of a capella singers in Korea, the group May Tree, who arranged a whole bunch of ring tones to sing a capella. They made us all laugh out loud. And Sherri danced again.
At the beginning of the Lord’s Prayer, if you go back to the Aramaic, which would have been the language Jesus would have said it in, it goes like this: Abwoon d’Bwash Maya! The closest translation back to English is Oh Birther! Oh Father mother of the cosmos. You create all that moves in light.
Jean Chandler, of Old Cambridge Baptist Church, tells it this way: ABWOON comes from the ALAHA = Aramaic word for God. It is the absolute, the oneness and unity, the source of all power. WOON = Birthing, creating, blessing flowing from the interior of this oneness towards us. OO = precursor to the Aramaic word for holy spirit: the wind, the electricity, the energy, the magnetism, the sound of breathing. SHMAYA = the radiance that is everywhere in the universe, the Aramaic concept of heaven, complete and eternal.
Our great womb of goodness, birthing, creating, blessing, flowing, like wind, electricity, magnetism, shimmering in the radiance of every part of the world, which to us is heaven: this is the beginning of the Lord’s Prayer if you say it in Aramaic.
In other words, it is all of this: the oneness and unity that was later translated into Greek as Hemon, into Latin as Noster, which we translated to English as Our. We are all together, one, unified, every creature, as we preached last week.
Jim Finley is a mystic, and one of my teachers in this two year program I am in through the Living School, at the Franciscan Center for Action and Contemplation run by Father Richard Rohr (it has been remote since we began, but I am hoping I do get to meet him one day). He is writing a new book about the spirituality of healing, and he gave us a preview. He tells this story from the desert fathers and mothers.
The desert fathers and mothers went to the wilderness to undergo a martyrdom, to die to all that hindered them from experiencing the mystical dimensions of the promises of Christ. One day a family went out into the desert, to look for them, and knocked on the door of the hermitage. They had brought their daughter, they said, because an evil wizard had turned her into a donkey. The hermit invited them in, asked them to sit to one side, and asked the daughter if she would like something to eat. She said yes, she would. And so the hermit began making food for her, and talking with her, asking questions about what mattered to her, attending to what she liked. As she sat and ate, the hermit sat down with her and listened to her with sincere affection, attention, kindness. When the parents saw this energetic focus and love for their daughter, they were glad. The way Jim Finley says it, “Their eyes were opened.”
They realized that their daughter was not a donkey. They were mistaken about that. They realized that the evil wizard had put a spell on them instead, leading them to believe that their daughter was a donkey. They tearfully embraced their daughter. As they left, they expressed their gratitude for what had happened. And the daughter was grateful too. For you can see how difficult it can be, when you parents think an evil wizard has turned you into a donkey. It is especially hard when you fall into the suffering that flows on when you believe you are the donkey your parents see in you. Once you fall into shame, it is a long journey back up again.
The promises Jesus brought forward in the Lord’s Prayer is one good way back. Starting with the Abwoon Bhawash Maya, it is a nice way back. Because we see how we are folded in the creative participation of joy in the universe, beloved and blessed and held. And we see that every one of us has this. And we go on to see heaven itself, which is energetic electricity and connectivity all around us. And we too can pray that prayer: Abwoon, Abwoon: creation, universe, universal love, wind, breath, holy spirit, womb, love, perfect love, unconditional love.
I am hearing from my Protestant friends and my Catholic friends that this is confusing, to think of the Our Father as a miracle of healing and ecstatic overcoming of obstacles. I don’t think many of you who grew up Protestant would think of the Lord’s Prayer as a freeing chance to participate in heaven when you see it sparking all around you. I think those of you who grew up Protestant might be thinking instead that your religion said you are supposed to take responsibility for all the troubles of the world, feel guilty about them all, and try to fix them, one by one on a great list. I don’t think many of you who grew up Catholic would think of The Lord’s Prayer as an invitation to dance when you hear beautiful music. What I hear from my Catholic friends, instead, is that the Lord’s Prayer was a punishment after confession, it was your penance. You would be supposed to say 3 Hail Mary’s and 5 Our Fathers. But I invite you all, especially the folks who grew up Protestant, especially the folks who grew up Catholic, to set aside the punishing parts of your earlier life. Pick up your soul. And dance into this wash of contemplative bliss: the part of heaven, electricity, power, and the part of generation: creativity, sharing, celebration, and the part of connectivity: seeing our people, our children, our enemies, our martyrs, ourselves, with new eyes. No longer seeing ourselves as a donkey. No longer seeing our enemies as hated. No longer seeing a noise as an interruption. Getting a nice meal cooked for us by a desert father. Getting a dance tune when we least expect it. And being listened to. This is the Abwoon Bhawash Maya. This is the Creator healer womb of heaven spirit of electricity and connectivity and life.
The Lord’s Prayer, as I look at it today, is instructions to ecstatic dance. It is the chance to celebrate the greatness of the womb of being, the sparks in the universe, the heavenly unity when we say B’washmaya. I say to you, this is a very different image of God. This is not God as this old bearded guy but God as the Lord of the Dance. This is God as the Lady of the Universe. This is an invitation to see the world with sacred eyes, to know creatures and people for their shimmering radiance: children, not donkeys, and donkeys, not stones, and stones, not trash, and ourselves, not someone else. The Heavenly One is within us. Heaven is all around us.
In conclusion, I am going to sing a song about the radiance of creation, written by Beethoven many years ago. Joyful, joyful, we adore thee…
- “OUR” – September 5, 2021
A Meditation on the First Word of the Lord’s Prayer
Rev. Dr. Rebecca Pugh
I always was a scrapper. I took up my fists first to defend my siblings, because sometimes times were tough at home. But being a scrapper, I often got it wrong, sometimes giving the opposite of what they needed. Sometimes I hurt them.
Then there was a day when I took up my fists against my neighbor. We had been playing, down amongst the fish docks, where the barrels of rotting fish were, and somehow the play flipped into a fight, and kids were stuffing dead pogies inside my pants. I got so angry that I could not move for a moment, and then all movement of the earth surged in me. I was like an electric fan with a broken lid.
In an hour it was over, and they brought Patti Wallace to apologize to me. Perhaps she was one of the ones who had stuffed the fish in my clothes. We did not really know each other. She put out her hand to shake mine, but I looked at my own hand and then I hit her hard, on her face.
I was dirt, these dripping fish scales and eyes and bits of filth. I was shame, this stinking body, this hurting hand. I ran, my sense of Patti’s face hurting and everything hurting and smelling bad.
After that it was a blur. I do not remember how I got the fish out of my clothes. I do not remember seeing the neighbors again, the ones who brought Patti to me. I did not hear if Patti’s face was ok.
The habit of scrapping took me to other stinking places after that one. It took me to garbage heaps in the fights for justice, but also piles of despair in eating disorders and addictions. Finally, it took me to a circle, where I joined together with other scrappers who had found themselves in other despairs and found that community and prayer could help a lot. Together and with God we slowly opened our hands, showed the soft parts of them. Together we reached to Christ, who opened a soft hand for us too, in the midst of his own suffering.
I cleaned my hands. It took me a quarter-century. My scrapping gave way to speaking. I found my voice. I found I was connected to other people, other creatures, other parts of the world. We prayed the “Our Father.” I found that the “Our” was the most important part of that holy prayer for me, that we were in community, we were one group, a part of God: we were children and fish and sea and land, and we were together.
In the scripture that we read today, we hear Jesus offering this prayer when people ask him how to pray. He says “Abwoon D’bwash Maya” in Aramaic–which literally means oh heavenly birther of the entire universe—this idea that we are all born of the goodness that begets us.
I am so glad for that, that heavenly gift, out of the brilliant mind that was Jesus’ mind: OUR is the first word of our holy prayer. Sometimes you only need that one word. This whole week I have been meditating with just that one sound, OUR, on my knees, cherishing the sound and the truth in it, and sometimes when you bend your knees and speak that holy word, even as it goes from Abwoon d’bwash maya to OUR, it is still so holy, even in our own language. Sometimes it makes you tremble. Sometimes it makes you weep. And sometimes it makes you euphoric. We are part of the great OUR.
Fifty years after that fight, I looked for Patti Wallace, trying to reach an open hand to her. I could not find her. Often at midnight when I cannot sleep, I turn on my face, ball up my hands under my hip joints and pray for Patti to be ok in her life.
Fifty years later, too, I have also asked the fish whose bodies were a part of that fight, I have asked them to forgive us. Their lives were wasted. Why would you kill one creature, just so you can use it as bait to kill another creature? And why would you fight with someone’s body? Pogie would rather stay alive in the sea, where they are the proud fish Menhaden: silvery things born in New England, drifting as larvae to the Chesapeake Bay, then migrating north and south in the Atlantic waters for the next ten years.
It is true as you get old, if you are lucky, that you find yourself increasingly merged with the rest of life, with the earth and the animals and people, for me especially Patti Wallace and the fish. I pray, when I kneel down now, to gentle myself into a practice of connectivity. I pray to come together with the parts of the world that hurt me. I pray to come back to the people and things that I hurt: siblings, fish, Patti, my parents, so many. And I pray to understand my small space on the edge of this planet, here by the fish docks where the barrels of fish still stand in dripping rows.
My scrapping separated me from all of that. But now, as I look at the scraps, they seem almost like a kaleidoscope, that something so wretched as a kid who fought her way through her childhood, whose pants were full of dead fish, could be redeemed, in the great “Our” that Jesus showed us how to say.
Sometimes when I walk and meditate, I realize I got a second chance. Sometimes I see the edges of the circle, pushing out past the borders to include the unwanted ones. Sometimes I see that the circle includes all the creatures, all the death and life, all the rocks and stars.
Scrappers or no, fish or living children, there is infinity in the world, and infinity beyond the world.
In conclusion, I would like to sing the Circle Song—this song from Taproot, which I was a part of the singing of for 25 years—also about the great circle, which we get to be a part of, the great OUR, which is this day, this life, this faith, this breath.
Feel it getting nearer, my little sister
See it getting clearer, my sweet brother
I can hear the whisper of my dear mother
The circle keeps growin’ strong
Welcome stranger, drawn to the fire
There is no danger, no desire
Far from danger flames getting higher
The circle keeps growing strong
Celebrate the living sing hosanna
Hallelujah the circle is strong
Celebrate the living, sing to the morning
Hallelujah the circle is strong
Well now, if you hear the music, sisters and brothers
If you care to join us, we’ll sing together
We can make a difference, now and forever
The circle keeps growin’ strong
- Binding the Strong Man: A Sermon for Memorial Day 2021
REBECCA: We have six legacies for you: stories for you about six veterans of First Church, Black and White veterans who died this year. We are the anti-racism task force here at First Church, we have been reading Ibram Kendi, and Ched Myer, Michelle Alexander, and we would like to tell you about overlapping images of heroism, in the context of one of the wildest parables Jesus ever told: the parable about binding the strong man.
The first legacy is that we change public safety so that it truly is public and safe. If public safety is not bringing comfort, shelter, protection to all the citizens, then we must change it.
I would like to start with the story of Leon Dorr, a veteran who died this year, who was a radio operator in World War II in the Navy, and one of the most courageous people I have ever known. He was so eager to use his skills for communication and connection, at 14 he forged his father’s signature to get into the Civil Defense Reserves. He ended up in the middle of World War two, in the Navy, doing radio communication.
His vision was always public safety as a way of working for the people, for their protection, making sure they could network with each other.
This vision of Leon’s for public safety makes a model for us as we think about how we might defend each other in the police and fire department today. And so I have a story of a firefighter who Leon would have loved, who saved the day in New Mexico this year. A man had headed into the grocery store to grab some groceries, and came back to his car to find out that it was holding 15,000 bees, honey bees, who had swarmed in the back open window while he was shopping.
The good news is that he called the Fire department, and the fire department had an off-duty firefighter who loves bees. Jesse Johnson, 38, firefighter, paramedic, and father of two, hustled to the parking lot and brought an empty beehive, a bucket, a bee suit, and some lemon grass, which apparently smells like a queen bee. Johnson had the 15,000 bees out of the car and safely into the hive in a half hour. He said he could have done it in 10 minutes, but he really wanted to get it right.
I love this story, and I love to think that Leon would have loved firefighter Johnson, because Leon also loved bees. Leon would have given anything to bring his skills and experience to help someone – whether it was a grocery shopper or 15,000 bees.
I also love this story because it helps me think about public safety: that we need to support every public defense department to have staff on every shift who are un-armed, who are skilled with mental health, animal health, and compassion. Some on our team want to de-fund the police. Others want to raise up the skilled staff so that their gifts shine so bright that you don’t need weapons. In the case of this grocery store in New Mexico, a gun would have been a lot less useful than the bucket and the lemongrass!
In the Gospel, we read this wild parable, that a thief cannot enter a strong man’s house unless he tie up the strong man. It is Jesus, the comedian, quoting Isaiah, the comedian. Isaiah uses the metaphor of being a sneaky thief as a way to change things. Jesus’ parable here is so strange and funny that we find ourselves scratching our heads. But the question rises up, what strong man do we need to bind up, as we make the changes that the world so badly needs? I would say the first strong man to bind is the way we think about public safety. We need more beekeepers, fewer pistols. We need fire-fighters, mental health workers, paramedics, midwives, in every town and city in the country.
EUNICE: And then there is a second legacy: that we sacrifice ourselves for each other. This is a legacy of knowing suffering, telling the truth about it, living in gratitude for others’ love and sacrifice for you, and seeing God’s love in the presence of suffering.
Jim Teele was a veteran who died this year. He served his country in the U.S. Army during the Korean War, two years in active duty and four years in reserve duty, and relished discussion of his army experiences in later life. He was the first Black Sociology Department Chairman at Boston University. He used to ask: Why does God allow suffering to happen on earth?
My Daddy weighed this question in his preaching, and he tried to come up with an answer, but I never really liked his answer. But here is what I see. White people did a lot to secure Black freedom. You see all the graves up in Maine, all the White boys who died in the Civil War from Maine. And you know it then. None of us gets any place without an awful lot of help. There are a lot more decent people than devilish.
This is an important legacy that Jim Teele knew: that we stand up for each other. Dr. Teele would have said this: more Memorial Days, but no more wars. Because we serve each other, and sacrifice for each other. This is our greatest calling.
The second strong man that we must bind is the strong man of individualism. Because we are social beings, in a world of social creatures of all forms. We need each other, and Jim Teele knew this better than anybody.
LYNN: There is a third legacy: that we make sure everybody can participate. Richard Smith offered a legacy of making sure everyone is included: ushering folks into church, making sure everybody could hear, welcoming everybody without exception. He served as the usher captain of First Church Ipswich, and he died during the Covid quarantine.
When he was a young man, Richard Smith enlisted in the National Guard, then the United States Army. There he served as sergeant first class in the Airborne in Korea. His work as a veteran was always so moving to our church. He was always making sure the church was a place where everybody could understand what was being talked about, and everybody had a place. As an usher, he would welcome you into the sanctuary, bring you to your seat. He always made sure you knew how glad he was that you were here. He would turn up the volume of the microphones if he thought you couldn’t hear. And he did this for decades.
This legacy of inclusion was valuable to our church, and is valuable to our world, as we think about a truly anti-racist society. We need to make sure everybody has a welcome seat, a hearing aid if they need one, a warm kind smile when they stand in the doorway. This is what Richard would have wanted us to remember.
The third strong man we must bind is the strong man of closed doors or exclusion. We must wrestle this devil to the ground and tie it up!
SHANNON:. This is the fourth and fifth legacy: a legacy of making sure that everybody has enough.
Let me talk to you about Ed and Eddie Paquin, two veterans who died in First Church this year. Ed and Eddie left a legacy of searching for ways to make sure other people had beauty and good food and plenty. Even though they did not have a lot of resources themselves, they believed in equality and sustainability so fiercely, they did all that they could to make sure people with less than them had enough.
Ed Paquin left school at the age of 17 to serve an enlistment in Alaska with the U.S. Air Force in 1946. He was always so creative, with beautiful painting, cooking, so many generous offerings. When he wanted to make sure people had enough money, though he did not have many extra resources himself, he took up his metal detector and went coin collecting at the beach, so he could give money away.
Eddy Paquin was his son. He died of Covid-19 this year, and yet he left a legacy to the church, so somebody hungry could have enough food. He was a part of the National Guard, in the 1970’s, here in Massachusetts.
This is the fourth strong man that we must bind: the strong man who has commandeered most of the goods and wealth in this land. And who is to bind this strong man? And what shall be done about all the wealth stolen, lives taken, lives demeaned? It is up to us, to right the wrongs done by one set of people against another set of human beings.
It is especially important because slave owners were given reparations at the end of the Civil War, and yet that formerly enslaved persons, meant to receive 40 acres and a mule, were instead often tricked by former slave owners into working as sharecroppers. Now is a high time for reparations.
BETH: The sixth legacy is this: That we fix broken things, broken laws, broken assumptions.
There are broken parts of the nation: that prisons are so unequally populated with Black and Brown and Indigenous people, even though the crime rates of the diverse races are equal. That the legal system cracks down unequally on Black and Indigenous and People of Color. That the life spans of Brown and Black people are shorter than life spans of White people in this country. That we have only offered unequal access to good neighborhoods, good schools, good food.
Donald Sawyer died this year. He was a veteran of the Navy. He learned a skill in the Navy, and then brought it home to his life here in Massachusetts: to be able to fix anything at all, with a few tools, a roll of duct tape, and some creativity. What we need now is the tools, a little duct tape, and a lot of creativity to mend the broken parts of the country. Because at Donald’s funeral, the Navy was there: Katrina and Keisha, two Black women in their beautiful Navy uniforms with their crisp white caps, folding the flag for him. And now as his legacy, we need to mend this country and make it a safe and fair place for them and their families. Donald had a pair of pliers on his funeral urn, as his family and community laughed about his ability to fix things. It is a good legacy for us.
The sixth strong man that we must bind is the strong man of our own superiority. We wondered: how do we overcome this idea that we are better than other people? We wondered: Is the strong man separation? What separates us?
Let us get out our tools, and our duct tape, and our pliers, and bind up that strong man, tape up that strong man, fasten down that strong man, bind him up right now. Let us mend the world.
- Understanding – May 23, 2021
by Rev. Dr. Rebecca Pugh
Acts 2:4 All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.
I have a sermon about understanding.
My friend Jan, who was born and raised in Belgium, is a part of my Circle 12 study group with the Franciscans, out of the Center for Action and Contemplation in New Mexico. He told us of a time when he met God. He was on an adventure with his brother, when he was a teenager. He and his brother bought tickets for a month-long train ride, and they rode all over Europe, back when you could do that when you bought the one ticket. As Jan says it, they were two men coming of age, with hair out to here (Jan talks with his hands). He describes how he and his brother ended up in Greece; his brother went on an adventure in one direction, and Jan went in another direction. Jan was walking, in the gloaming, hungry, big backpack, without plans, and he went down a dark road, not sure why his intuition led him there. His heart was open. He came to a gate in a fence, and some instinct he had told him to turn in the gate.
What he found down the road was a hotel, with fancy new construction. He knocked. Nobody came for the longest time. Finally, the gardener came, startled to see him there, and just stood there, taking in his pack, his hair, his quiet.
Jan explains what happened next, in a way that sounds like he still can’t believe it. The gardener did not speak English, and Jan did not speak much English either then, and Jan spoke even less Greek, and the gardener did not speak any of the Dutch, French, and German that they speak in Belgium, so these two men did not have a common language. The gardener brought Jan into the empty hotel kitchen. And then he started to cook him supper. The way Jan remembers it, he began to prepare all of these Greek foods. The Imam Bayildi, the Spanakopita, the falafel, the grape leaves, the Avgolemono. Jan could not have imagined that they could have had such an evening together, tasting foods, laughing, so overcome by joy to cook and eat together. The gardener cooked for Jan all night.
When Luke writes in the Book of Acts that they had gathered at Pentecost, they were there, ready to celebrate the festival of wheat and barley in Shavuot (feast of weeks, because it is seven weeks after Passover), and to bring the first fruits to the temple in Jerusalem (wheat, barley, figs, dates, grapes, pomegranates, and olives), to celebrate the gift of Torah—they were all there ready to do that, when the leaders suddenly got filled with the rush of wind and the tongues of fire and started speaking other languages, languages which all the people who had come to the center of the city to give thanks for Pentecost could understand. And they were stunned with this feast of understanding. Peter said it was exactly as the prophet had said, that there would be a day when we would understand each other, when all the groups would speak, and all would understand: when women and men, young and old and middle aged, slaves and free, would all speak and be understood, and the boundaries between us would fall away.
I love this generous religious holiday from the book of Acts and how it overlaps with Jan’s feast in the absence of a common language. In Scripture, the leaders spoke and everybody understood in their own languages. And in Jan’s story, the language was food, and Jan understood it perfectly. Truly, each of us could tell a story of when we got to welcome a stranger, or a stranger welcomed us, and how easy the language was. Paul writes that the spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words, when we ourselves can find the words for a prayer.
The word in Hebrew for spirit is the same word as the word for wind. I like to think that this means that they are in the same corner of your brain when you hear them. The word is Ruach, this concept of the breath of God and the breath of us. We breathe in the wind, we breathe in the breath, we breathe in the Spirit of God. Beatrice Bruteau would say God is hidden in these ordinary things like wind, that we might not even know were God’s. And this holiness, blowing around us and being breathed in by all of us, is holy understanding.
My neighbors Jill and Allison are working on their sidewalk this week, on Mineral Street: Allison is building cairns and digging in their tiny garden, planting so many sweet plants, and Jill is making a tiny museum out of a doll house, complete with gardens and glass balls and Buddhas and Modigliani paintings, cut out of catalogues and lovingly wrapped about tiny boxes. They are sitting outside their house, welcoming the folks who walk by, and inviting them to sit on an upturned bucket with a rug spread on top, like a royal chair, to enjoy the art and the garden. Jill offered to give some of it away, but not all of it. I was so happy even just to be there, I thought I would just take it in. I didn’t need any words. I could understand it perfectly. And it was a gift, offered in all of the languages of the world. Art is like food: you don’t need words. Gardens are like that too. Really, the planet is, if you stop for a year and pay attention to it. You don’t need words. You can just understand it if you listen.
When Jan finished the story, he said that the sun was rising, after all that food, and Jan wanted to sleep a little. The gardener said Jan couldn’t stay in a room or the gardener would get fired. So instead the gardener showed him a bench outside the front door, in the morning sunlight, where he could take a nap. Jan lay down and napped, and the gardener went back into the kitchen. And you know what happened next? The gardener cooked breakfast.
Often, when people are speaking languages we think we don’t know, we actually do know how to understand them. And then there is the mystical speaking in tongues too, that sometimes goes with the gifts of the Holy Spirit. Because understanding is a gift – a sacred gift – and it is beyond all the ordinary kinds of intelligence. It is its own holy gift. And today is its feast.
In conclusion, I would like to sing you Peter Mayer’s Blue Boat Home, this new set of folk words about the understanding which Walt Whitman said was “Seeking the spheres to connect them”. It is to the lovely old Welsh tune which Rowland Hugh Pritchard wrote when he was 19: Hyfrydol, which means lovely, pleasant, tuneful, delightful, pleasant, agreeable, harmonious. May our understanding grow in holiness, and may we be delighted by it, and may we find ourselves ever in communion, with each other, the land, the sea, and the sky.
Though below me, I feel no motion
Standing on these mountains and plains
Far away from the rolling ocean
Still my dry land heart can say
I’ve been sailing all my life now
Never harbor or port have I known
The wide universe is the ocean I travel
And the earth is my blue boat home