Sermon preached May 13, 2012
Texts: Psalm 103:1-8, 19-22; Acts 10:44-48
Astounding. To astound – to amaze, to astonish, to fill with sudden wonder. “The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astounded that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles.”
Are we ever astounded any more? I can think to things that tend to astound us. Say “September 11” and we remember how astounded we were that planes would be used as weapons in New York City. Judging from what I see in television advertising, we tend to be astounded by crime, particularly random crimes or gruesome crimes – the Manson Family, Columbine, Jeffrey Daumer, Ted Bundy.
We seem to be able to be astounded by tragedy, but I have a concern in our day of twenty-four hour news stations that we may be losing our ability to be astounded by some of the pain of the world that should astound and astonish us. Seeing too many pictures of starving children, do we become immune to their plight? Watching too many stories about war-torn countries, do we become hardened to such brutality? I think part of the work of God’s Spirit in our lives, the Spirit of Jesus, is to keep our hearts softened enough to know some of the pain in the world. Perhaps the child-like spirit Jesus encouraged is, in part, a spirit that can be astonished by human pain, human cruelty. I hope and pray that deep injustice continues to astound me. Even as I work with death and with grieving families, I hope and pray that I never lose the ability to feel some of their grief and pain and be astonished again and again by the depth of love and care in the face of death.
But while I am concerned about us losing our ability to be astounded by hurt and pain and tragedy, concerned because as long as we can be astounded we can be motivated to do something to alleviate hurt and stem the tide of injustice, I am even more concerned that we may be losing our ability to be astounded by goodness. Can we still be astounded by goodness?
Allow me a couple of examples from our political life. This week President Obama told the American people that he has come to believe that same sex couples should have the right to marry. Almost immediately the analysis of his statement was framed in narrow political terms – he needed to shore up his support among a particular base in his party. He needed to provide a contrast with the Republican candidate. Lost in such analysis is any sense that this might have been a moral statement, a statement about goodness. Now I am not naïve enough to think that they were no political calculations in this statement, but I also think this may have been a person trying to understand something about human goodness and human decency.
Mitt Romney looks to be the Republican nominee for President. During many of the primary debates he was often castigated for having changed his mind about one thing or another. While it is fair to wonder if someone running for office changes simply to appeal to certain voters, there were times when it seemed as if people were claiming that any change ever was illegitimate. One needed to hold one’s views the same forever. But isn’t that absurd. Surely we are not born fully formed. Isn’t the point of education to help us see the world in new ways, and perhaps change our minds? Don’t we want to be life-long learners, and if we are, we might change. I think it’s called growth.
My point is that there seems to be in our culture a way of thinking which gets in the way of our ability to be astounded. If a politician makes a moral statement, it is just politics, not trying to do good. If a politician changes her or his mind, they are not learning and growing, they are flip-floppers. Donors to a good cause become people who care only about their good name, not people who really care about a cause. Such thinking gets in the way of our ability to be astounded.
Now I am enough of a realist to know that for politicians political calculations are never far from their thinking. I am enough of a realist to know that people often have mixed motives in doing good. Skepticism is o.k., but when skepticism shades into cynicism, we lose our ability to be astounded, amazed, surprised, filled with wonder.
And here’s the real danger in that. We risk missing the work of God’s Spirit if we cannot be astounded by goodness, amazed by beauty, astonished by love. We need not and should not surrender our skepticism or give up our critical thinking, but we need to allow that goodness can happen, beauty can happen, love can happen. God’s Spirit can be at work in our lives and in our world. Bless God, O my soul, and all that is within me, bless God’s holy name. Bless God, O my soul and do not forget all God’s benefits. “The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astounded that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles.”
I was astounded at General Conference when two of the most prominent United Methodist pastors in the United States stood together at a microphone to offer a statement about human sexuality that acknowledged our church’s differing opinions on the matter. Adam Hamilton and Mike Slaughter pastor growing and vibrant churches. Both are rooted in the more evangelical stream of Christian faith, yet they want to move our church in a new direction, allowing for faithful disagreement even as we work together. Their statement ended with the words of John Wesley. Though we cannot think alike, may we not love alike? May we be of one heart, though we are not of one opinion?
I am often astounded by music. I am often astounded by the music here at this church. Wonderfully gifted musicians offer their gifts and talents to give our worship a certain depth and power. I am deeply grateful to our music staff – Carol, and Bill and Mike and Cynthia, and Richard, and to our support staff: Roger, Nick and Sarah, and to every voice and instrument played. You regularly astound me, and I am most astonished when some piece of music strikes a chord in tune with the sermon. Yes, I send out worship themes a few weeks in advance for our music staff, but there are times when something comes together in a way that leaves me filled with wonder. Thank you.
Mothers should astound us. On this Mother’s Day, I hope we recognize that, and to help us do so, I want to share part of a delightful poem about mothers. The poem is called “The Lanyard.” The poet is Billy Collins. In the first couple stanzas of the poem Collins is reminded of a time at camp as a child when he made a lanyard for his mother.
I had never seen anyone use a lanyard
or wear one, if that’s what you did with them,
but that did not keep me from crossing
strand over strand again and again
until I had made a boxy
red and white lanyard for my mother.
She gave me life and milk from her breasts,
and I gave her a lanyard.
She nursed me in many a sickroom,
lifted teaspoons of medicine to my lips,
set cold face-cloths on my forehead,
and then led me out into the airy light
and taught me to walk and swim,
and I, in turn, presented her with a lanyard.
Here are thousands of meals, she said,
and here is clothing and a good education.
And here is your lanyard, I replied,
which I made with a little help from a counselor.
Here is a breathing body and a beating heart,
strong legs, bones and teeth,
and two clear eyes to read the world, she whispered,
and here, I said, is the lanyard I made at camp.
Collins ends the poem by saying that one other gift given by his mother was the feeling she gave that “this useless, worthless thing I wove/out of boredom would be enough to make us even.” (The Trouble With Poetry, 45-46). Mothers should astound us, and I am astounded by this poem, too.
Another poet, Mary Oliver, in one of her works offers these lines:
Instructions for living a life:
Tell about it. (Red Bird, 37)
Yes. We risk missing the work of God’s Spirit if we cannot be astounded by goodness, amazed by beauty, astonished by love. God’s Spirit is at work in our lives and our world.
And if God’s Spirit is indeed at work in our lives and in our world, and in some astounding ways, we not only need open minds and hearts, we should allow ourselves to be astounding at times. I think there is a connection between allowing ourselves to be astounded and allowing God to astound the world through us.
At General Conference I was seated with some of the delegation from Iowa and among their delegation was a young woman who I had met before. Midway through the second week of General Conference she was in an accident, hit by a truck. There were no broken bones, only bruises and soreness, and she returned to General Conference, but in wheel chair. That night at worship the focus of action for the service moved from the stage to a large baptismal fount in the center of the room. We all turned, but Jessica was in her wheel chair and could not turn by herself. I noticed that her eyes began to tear up and so I quietly moved near her and asked if she wanted to turn. “Yes.” We got her turned and I stayed near and held her hand, but soon the action of worship moved back up front and we both laughed a little at all the work it took to move her for such a few moments. Following the worship service, a bishop who had been seated on the edge of the auditorium came up to me and said that he could not help but notice that tender caring moment.
I am a little hesitant to tell this story. What I did was nothing extraordinary, just offered some care to a person I know. It seemed to astound another, though, and I am glad of that.
The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astounded. Keep an open heart, a heart open to being astounded by goodness, by beauty, by love. Keep an open heart to being astounding in the name of Jesus. Amen.