Friday, February 20, 2015

Gatsby and God

Sermon preached February 15, 2015

Texts: Mark 9:2-9

            In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since.  “Whenever you feel like criticizing anyone,” he told me, “just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had.”
            Those are the opening lines of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s masterful novel, The Great Gatsby, and they are the thoughts of Nick Carraway, the story teller of the novel.  I hope you are not now shutting down, remembering some bad experience in a high school English class where you simply never liked this book.  This sermon has no prerequisites.  You do not have to have read The Great Gatsby, or liked it, or even seen the movie, to listen.
            Less than 200 pages later, after Jay Gatsby has been killed, and Tom and Daisy Buchanan get to go on with their careless lives, Fitzgerald ends his book with these haunting and beautiful words.  Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us.  It eluded us then, but that’s no matter – tomorrow we will run faster, stretch our arms farther….  And one fine morning----  So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.
            I’ve been thinking about The Great Gatsby recently because of Maureen Corrigan.  Maureen Corrigan is the book critic for the NPR show Fresh Air.  Any of you ever listen to it?  I don’t as much as I used to, but I love Maureen Corrigan’s voice and her book reviews.  Anyway, she recently published a book of her own on The Great Gatsby, So We Read On.  It was a delightful read.  Corrigan says that one aspect of what is going on in the book is that Fitzgerald writes about a world in which “God no longer exists” (20).  “Like other novels of its shell-shocked generation, Gatsby asks what kind of God would allow the apocalypse of World War I to happen (21-22). 
Given this, it may seem odd to have a sermon entitled “Gatsby and God.”  But I think we, too, wrestle with God.  We wonder where God is in the midst of our own terrors and tragedies.  Somehow we have to reconcile the presence of God in the world with all the news that comes our way through the radio, television, newspapers, through Facebook and Twitter and other internet sites.  Beginning next week, our Lenten journey will be one where we ask where God is.  We will begin some of that discussion now.
One of the most beautiful parts of Corrigan’s book, though, is her discussion of how to appreciate The Great Gatsby.  To do so we need to look at the world a little differently.  To appreciate the book Corrigan says, “you have to wise up a little, get older, become more vulnerable to both the sadness of everyday life and its loveliness” (6).  Becoming vulnerable to the sadness of everyday life and its loveliness opens us up to God, I believe.  It certainly helps me understand what’s going on in the gospel this morning.
Every year, the last Sunday before the season of Lent, the gospel reading is one of the stories of the Transfiguration, this strange and mysterious episode where Peter, James and John go with Jesus up the mountain and there have this visionary experience of him.  In the midst of it, they also hear a voice from a cloud, the voice of God.  “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!”  Then in a way only Mark does, we have this word “Suddenly!”  “Suddenly, when they looked around, they saw no one with them anymore, but only Jesus.”  The Jesus they see is a Jesus who has already begun to speak about his suffering.  This is a moment where we encounter the sadness of everyday life and its loveliness.
The story of the Transfiguration of Jesus is a story about Jesus, about his importance for Christian faith.  Mark is asserting the basic Christian claim that Jesus is the one in whom and through whom we know God best.  The story is also a challenge and an invitation to us, as people who have already started on the Jesus way, to see differently, even in the ordinary and every day.  To see differently is to also align our hearts differently and to live differently.  We respond to the world as we understand it, as we see it, but one of the primary images of the New Testament is that we often don’t see very well, and need healing for our “blindness.”
Joan Chittister tells a story about her childhood.  When she was about thirteen years old, she made her first trip to New York City.  She had one site in particular on her mind.  She had her heart set on seeing the Empire State Building.  I scanned every horizon and compared every building I could see with what I could remember of pictures in encyclopedias and grade school magazines. (Gospel Days, 26)  So while my mother and aunt went in and out of store, I walked the streets of New York, head back, gawking at one building after another and calculating their heights.  Finally, a little dizzy, my cousins and I stopped to lean against the nearest building.  I shook my head out, stretched my neck, and without any warning at all, suddenly saw the thing.  “There it is!” I yelled to my cousin.  “It’s down there.”  I pointed at a building blocks beyond us.  “Oh, it is not,” my cousin snapped back, older, superior.  “That’s it on the other corner.”  The cousins argued for a while, then the story continues.  “Aunt Helen,” I demanded when our mothers came out of the store, “which one of us is right, Ellen or me?  Is that the Empire State Building on the left side of that street down there or is it the building on the other corner?”  “It’s neither,” she said.  “You two are leaning against it” (26-27)
We are invited to see the world more truthfully, to be vulnerable to the sadness of everyday life and its loveliness.  There is another beautiful line on the final page of The Great Gatsby.  Nick meditates on Long Island and wonders what it would have been like for the Dutch looking at Long Island and Manhattan for the first time.  For a transitory enchanted moment man must have held his breath in the presence of this continent, compelled into an aesthetic contemplation he neither understood nor desired, face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity  for wonder.  We see the world more truthfully when we can see sadness and loveliness, when we can retain our capacity for wonder.
We are invited to see God in the everyday, active in the world.  We will be exploring many more dimensions of this during Lent, but here is one dimension.  In his book Who Needs God, Rabbi Harold Kushner tells the story of a rabbi friend.  His rabbi friend argues that when thinking about God we should practice “predicate theology.”  Do you remember learning in English class [for those of you who never liked English class this has been a brutal morning!] that when the verb a sentence is a form of the infinitive “to be” (am, are is), the part that comes after the verb is not called an object… but is known as a predicate?  “Predicate theology” means that when we find statements about God that say, for example, “God is love,” “God is truth,” “God is the friend of the poor,” we are to concentrate on the predicate rather than the subject.  Those are not statements about God; they are statements about love, truth, and befriending the poor, telling us that those are divine activities, moments in which God is present. (203)  Where are the moments where God is present?  We are invited to see these, not just when we have visions, but when it is only the familiar surrounding us.
We are invited to see other people in a new light.  God called Jesus “beloved.”  God calls each of us “beloved” too.  Can we see the belovedness of others?  There is a poem I use every year with my confirmation class that expresses how I would like us to treat each other.  The Persian poet Hafiz wrote, in part, (The Gift, 47):
If God
Invited you to a party
And said,

In the ballroom tonight
Will be my special Guest,”

How would you then treat them
When you

            We are invited to see ourselves as beloved, too.  I will be speaking more about this on Wednesday night, Ash Wednesday, but for this morning a story.  Once upon a time, a man goes to visit a close friend for dinner.  He drinks too much and falls asleep.  Meanwhile his friend, having to leave on official business, ties a precious jewel within the guests garment as a present before he leaves. The man, being asleep, knows nothing of this.  Awaking he travels onward until he reaches another country.  In this place, he toils hard to earn enough for food and clothing, often just barely eking by.  After a time, the friend who he had visited comes upon him.  “How is it that you toil so strenuously for food and clothing?  Wishing you to be comfortable and satisfied, when you visited I tied a precious jewel within your garment.  It remains, and here you are slaving and worrying to keep yourself alive.  Go and exchange that jewel for what you need and live free from poverty and shortage.” (adapted from Teachings of the Buddha, ed. Kornfield, 203)  D you see the precious jewel that you are?

            Gatsby believed in the green light.  I believe in God, the God of Jesus Christ who is at work in the midst of this world of sadness and loveliness and wonder, calling us beloved, inviting us to treat each other as beloved, inviting us to care for the world and each other, and to celebrate God’s presence with joy, as God continues to work for beauty, truth, love, kindness, justice compassion and peace.  And so we continue on, not borne back ceaselessly into the past, but borne into God’s future.  Do you see it?  Amen.

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