Swan Song – a closing sermon

1. Swan Song

A swansong is the exquisite burst of music at the close of a silent life, at least according to ancient legends about the swan. So it is with amusement that after a lifetime of making words come together for worship, I come to you having just spent a month in silent worship with the Quakers, now re-entering worship words to share a “swansong”. Words for a minister are perhaps like drinks for an alcoholic, one is too many and a thousand is not nearly enough.

2. Veneration of Knowledge

As I ponder the invitation to share a bit of parting wisdom, it seems oddly appropriate that the text and theme for the day, chosen before the significance was known is “knowledge”.

The topic is appropriate for Peace UCC in Webster Groves MO because we are a community that lauds, perhaps even venerates, knowledge. We pride ourselves with our good public schools in WG, with the intellectual influences not only of Eden Seminary but Webster University and even the proximity with intellectual giants like Washington University and St. Louis University. Too we are proud that both in our zip code and even in our worshipping community we have an inordinate number of members with advanced degrees. We call ourselves an “educated congregation”. And it is very good.

Yet as I sat with this familiar text and teaching this week, I’ve been struck by the difference between knowledge (noun) and knowing (verb) and with my own particular challenge: the more I ‘know’, the less knowledge I have. In my own life I have discovered a consistent and inverse relationship between the two. Most significantly, the more that I’ve come to “know” the sacred, the more certain I am that God is not an external diety to be described but an internal presence to be experienced.

Which, of course, has been an occupational hazard… but let me back up to the beginning.

3. Relevant Heresies

Once upon a time when I was a child in Sunday School, I was invited to share both “knowing” and knowledge. Our Sunday School books were filled with knowledge (wondrous bible stories of intrigue and scandal) and traditional “born again” theology. But our books also offered a rather peculiar teaching in a story about a dude named George Fox. Fox taught about something called the “inner light”, that within each of us is a spark of the sacred, the very presence of God. Original sin or divine spark, which is at the core of our being?

The question was answered definitively when I went to a Christian college and learned about the Gnostic heretics who (we were taught) were an early but mortal threat to the very survival of Christianity, a heretical group who believed in a crazy idea that within all humans there is a … divine spark, the very presence of God.

Admittedly I was skeptical and was delighted in seminary to learn more about these heretics, connecting the dots with the Quakers, and being assured that heretics, though perhaps shunned in their day, were not always the bad guys. My history professor in seminary even encouraged us to study church history from the margins. As we read the theologians who’ve been labeled and set aside we discover that though an institutional religion has consistently affirmed sets of knowledge, there have always been spiritual teachers who’ve embraced a way of being, of knowing, that was outside of and/or at odds with the institution.

Heresy aside, knowing trumps knowledge.

4. Thomas 70

One of the parallel readings this morning was from Thomas’ gospel, an important example of a book that had been labeled as heresy and subsequently lost for many years. The particular verse that we heard this morning has been incredibly shaping in my life for more than a decade and one that speaks to the power of knowing. Elaine Pagels translates the verse this way: “If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you.”

What we need for this day, all that we need, is as close as our next breath. If we bring it forth, we will find what we need, our salvation or safe-keeping. This teaching, of course, brings me full circle to the inner light of my childhood and the legends of the heretics. It is Marianne Williamson’s “who are you not to shine?” and the spiritual truth that we sing each January Sunday, “this little light of mine”. Found but not contained in our Christian story, this truth dances across continents and generations with a range of expressions and religious names.

The text has some critics, mostly for the second half or the corollary. If we hid our light, it will destroy us. Although I’m pretty much over with the binary categories, the painful truth of life is that a dream deferred not only dies in our closet but sets decay at the very core of our being. Inasmuch as we are gifted with an inner light, that light must be fed; as the light seeks nourishment, if we keep it locked inside it will eat us from the inside out.

So here is the conundrum of life:
If we embrace the truth that is ours, we will soar to new heights.
If we deny our truth, we will be torn asunder.

5. A Bellwether Moment

I had a moment of truth some years ago now when I was working on a bulletin, typing the word “Christ” in a community prayer. As my fingers formed the familiar word a question emerged from within, unbidden. Is that the most helpful word to use in that spot? A silly question for “Christ” is of course a common word for divinity within a Christian community, so why the question? I stopped typing and began to reflect. At the time (and now) there were many hyphenated families in our community: Christian-Buddhist, Christian-Wiccan, Agnostic-Christian, Jewish-Christian. Then, as now, folk familiar and comfortable with religious tradition and language sat in pews beside others smarting from “Christian-eze” and still others unfamiliar with religious language. As I considered the necessity of a particular word in a particular prayer, the answer was “of course not”. As I let go of my assumptions about the need to use the word “Christ” and tried more inclusive options like Spirit and Holy One, I realized that our doors of welcome opened wider.

And as the doors opened wider, we discovered that the windows opened too. As my own faith became increasingly light in words and deep in faith, you joined with me on the journey. Together we have wondered about the words we use at the table, what our ministers wear and where they stand, and more. The beauty is that as we become less attached to doctrine, creeds, and even liturgical traditions, we have (unintentionally but very clearly) become increasingly more inclusive. It has been an amazing and wondrous journey, filled with hope and promise.

But also at points an unsettling one. If not in the creeds and traditions and texts, then what can we trust? What is the solid rock? On what can we raise our Ebenezer? When we pull on the dangling thread of the sweater, we fear we will soon find ourselves naked.

Admittedly I stand here pretty naked today. At some point I realized a painful inescapable truth: I absolutely believe Jesus about God, I simply don’t believe the church about Jesus. In very real ways, I realize that I have prayed my way out of the church. I wonder if I am a “none” (one of the growing number of Americans who identify themselves as “spiritual but not religious”) and as I step outside of the comfort of our community I won’t pretend that the way hasn’t been watered with tears.

I share this story because, directly and indirectly, the theology that we’ve shared has brought us to this fork in the road and presents important questions for you as a community moving forward. I share my experience because I continue to believe that there is a felt need to gather in communities like this one in which we’ve dared to practice a “spiritual but not religious” expression and the temptation will be to reach backward for familiar traditions. Please don’t, at least not without prayerful consideration.

Since I was ordained, our denomination has shrunk by more than half. Churches all around us, even ones with good music and good preaching, are in decline and many are closing. This beloved community has been steady and at points truly brilliant in these same recent years – not in spite of but in fact because we’ve dared to flow with the current and lose our grip the trappings of “religion”. Inasmuch as we have been willing to explore the edges of progressive religious expression, we have found new life, new relevance and new growth. This is a season to stretch the welcome, to be bold and daring, to paint with purple and bring in drums into worship.

The light shines from within. Embrace it and thrive, for we deny it to our own peril.

6. I Sit by the River

And with that I’ve come to the end of my words. Except, of course, there is always room for one more story:
As the teacher grew weary from pointing, she knew it was time to step away in order for the community to see what was right before them. “What is it we fail to see when you are with us?” they asked for they truly couldn’t see.
She waited until perhaps the very last moment to speak her truth, for its simplicity was quite unbelievable.
With a twinkle in her eye and a heart filled with love she explained, “For years I have sat on the edge of the river, handing out water. Now it is time for me to wade in the water. And after I am gone, I trust that you will notice the river for yourselves.” (based on an Anthony de Mello story)

Ready or not, we have come to the water’s edge.
I’m ready to wade. And you?