This sermon was first preached at the First UU Congregation of Brooklyn, NY for our annual 4pm New Year’s Vespers service on Sunday, December 30th. It looks at the renewal of the spirit and how that helps us to affect justice in the world.
My cat Dewey was helping me with my sermon writing this week. If you have a cat or a dog, you probably have been in the same situation before. I’ve settled down with my laptop on the couch to write. I’ve been away from my cat for two minutes too long, and he’s followed me from his comfortable perch nestled on my pillow. He jumps up on the couch, looks at me. Purrs. Rubs up next to me. Pauses to paw at my arm to show me exactly how it’s done – as if he’s saying “yeah, go ahead and pet me just like this, I’m sure you just forgot how, otherwise you’d be petting me right now.” Focused as I am, I absently give him some attention, but it’s not enough. He’s now up on the laptop, crawling up my chest, and planting his body in my face. At some point he manages to flip around – exactly how I’m not sure. In short, I have a fur-ball in my eyes, nose and mouth.
Now there are a bunch of ways to handle this. If you’re not a pet-lover, there’s going to be one unhappy kitty soon. But for the rest of us, you just have to stop what you’re doing and pay attention. This little ball of life has got you by the face and is reminding you – life is happening right now, right here – and it’s not going anywhere just yet.
T.S. Eliot has a line in his epic poem, “The Four Quartets” that approaches this same lesson from … a different angle. “At the still point of the turning world. Neither flesh nor fleshless; Neither from nor towards; at the still point, there the dance is, But neither arrest nor movement. And do not call it fixity, Where past and future are gathered. Neither movement from nor towards, Neither ascent nor decline. Except for the point, the still point, There would be no dance, and there is only the dance.” Now I don’t mean to suggest that Eliot’s referencing a cat somewhere between arrest, movement, ascent or decline – even if the image of not “calling it fixity” is very apt. (His cat poems come later.)
Rather, life is about the attentive pauses. Not so much about the breaks, or the rest, or the relief – those are very important too but not it. Life is about the moments of gratitude; the times of awareness. The world continues spinning, the dancers continue dancing, the cat is still climbing your face for attention but we are there to appreciate it, though we know not where that place is. Some of us will call it mindfulness. Others may call it gratitude. The less spiritually-inclined might simply call it paying attention. Eliot’s “still point” is the lack of motion within every motion. Many of us know how to do the part of the dance very well, but find the part of being the dancer very difficult.
Allegorically speaking, the story of the Birth of Jesus is about this too. A star shines bright in the clear sky. The kings get off their thrones; the wise men gather gifts to bear; the shepherds leave behind their flocks for a short time. Something great has just occurred. Where did it occur though? In some great exciting place? Were there alarms, or sirens, or flashing party lights? No. In the hidden recesses of a dirty manger, amongst the animals of the field. In the most everyday of places, the birth of Hope was to be found. All that is, is held within the ordinary, the mundane – only our perception cracks open its meaning; our appreciation makes all the difference.
One bit of advice I give couples going up to their wedding day relates to this. All the work we do leading up to the wedding, all the logistical bits – planning the party, the caterer, the dresses, the flowers, the music, the ceremony, the guest list, the table eating and so on – are all rituals that we can really get lost in. As with all things in life, we can let them drive us crazy. However, they can also all be a really intentional way of reminding us that for that short 15-30 minute wedding ceremony, we should be really present for it. We committed all this time, energy and focus over the past year to the planning of a very short event. It’s a way of reminding us that that joy, that celebration, is worthy of spending the time on it. What happens in the small moment of “I do” is that important. Personally, I sometimes imagine all that effort is somehow condensed in the moment. The still point in the turning world.
And it’s those moments between the moments (as T.S. Eliot writes in another section of the same epic poem) that we can return to for solace, for energy, or inspiration. The pausing is not solely about rest, but about renewal. Those two words may seem like the same thing, but I believe there’s a difference. Anyone who has woken up in the morning, after a full night’s sleep, with no will to goto work or school knows the difference between rest and renewal. The still point is about coming back to our place of renewal – stopping so that we can start once more – with fresh purpose and meaning. Gratitude enables us to meaningfully act.
Let us return briefly to the words of Howard Thurman who we heard earlier, “When the song of the angels is stilled, When the star in the sky is gone, When the kings and princes are home, When the shepherds are back with their flock, The work of Christmas begins: To find the lost,
To heal the broken, To feed the hungry, To release the prisoner,
To rebuild the nations, To bring peace among brothers, To make music in the heart.” This holiday season we’ve stopped, we’ve celebrated the return of light, and the turning of the world. We’ve paused to share time with our families, our friends, or just find some quiet time away from the frenetic New York minute. And we begin again.
We begin again as our full selves – or as close to our full selves as we can muster. The religious call asks we begin again doing the work of Christmas; striving to make the world a more safe, a more just, a more sane place. The work of Christmas isn’t about figuring out how to lose the 10 pounds we gained from the eating at Christmas – although that’s important too. It’s not about resolutions on how to get control of our lives once more after a month of celebratory abandon – although that might be needed as well. The resolution for us as religious people is to figure out how to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, care for the sick and those in prison (or reduce the need for so many people in prison), to shelter the homeless. If we do that work, the rest will follow.
The rest will follow because our priorities will be set. The need for the next thing, the distraction, the party, whatever that thing is that we feel we’re lacking that in reality is not essential – that will sift lower in our values when we’ve set the work of Christmas as our essential. The rest will follow when we accept that the distraction, or the crippling addiction we feel helpless before, or the petty grievance we keep at our forefront – all are not essential to who we are. They are what keeps us from ourselves, not what actually define us.
Mystically, T.S. Eliot’s “still point” echoes this. “Except for the point, the still point, There would be no dance, and there is only the dance.” The moment in the manger; the moment we realize there’s enough lamp oil to illuminate all we ever could dream of; that the days will get longer, that the world will continue to spin; the moment we pause to appreciate the Holy in our lives; the moment we pause to recognize the powerless and the meek for their own worth; the moment we stop in awareness of the breadth of life – that moment informs all the rest. That moment of stillness gives the dance meaning, and makes it possible. Life is not a series of disconnected moments strung together with only the meaning we lend it. Life is encountered in the flow between stillness and movement. The renewal of the spirit, rather than the resting of the body.