Sermon For Sunday, February 16, 2014

Luke 3:21-22; Matthew 26:26-30; Acts 2:42-43 & Selection from East Coker

“The Pattern Gets More Complicated”

Today is the second sermon of a four-part series:

“On The Journey With Faith & Poetry: A Faith-Based Study Of

T.S. Eliot’s “Four Quartets” (Twitter: #TSE4quartets)

Franklin Circle Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)

Cleveland, Ohio ~ www.FranklinCircleChurch.org

Rev. Allen V. Harris, Pastor & Preacher

Twitter: @FranklinCircle ~ Pastor’s Blog: https://nearwestclevepastor.wordpress.com

To hear T. S. Eliot read his poem “East Coker,” go online to: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=icWQGrhdr7E

EmptyLotI love going home for many reasons, but most especially for the ritual of seeing what changes have happened to my hometown.  “Oh, there’s a new store there.  What was there before?”  It’s almost a game.  I’ve noticed I do the same thing here in Cleveland now, especially as the pace  of renovation and building has picked up.  We drove past East 22nd Street and Euclid Avenue last night, only to see some major new building at CSU going up.  “Now, what was there before?…” I asked Craig?

BrickWallThe history books indicate that on the very spot we are worshipping today their once was an Ursaline girl’s school.  This would have been in the early to mid-1800’s.  As the story goes this school – which through several generations would end up becoming part of the Urban Community School we now know and love on West 54th and Loraine – was taken down brick by brick and those building blocks would be used by the thrifty members of Franklin Circle Church of Christ to build the foundation of our building.  (1)

And, of course, the Ursuline girl’s school was built on land that at one time was the home of indigenous peoples of the area, most likely members of the peoples we call the Erie tribe of Native Americans, who inhabited a large swath of land from western New York across the bottom of Lake Erie and Northern Ohio. (2)  And thus the opening words of

T. S. Eliot

T. S. Eliot

T.S. Eliot’s poem “East Coker” speak this truth:

In my beginning is my end. In succession

Houses rise and fall, crumble, are extended,

Are removed, destroyed, restored, or in their place

Is an open field, or a factory, or a by-pass.

Old stone to new building, old timber to new fires,

Old fires to ashes, and ashes to the earth

Which is already flesh, fur, and faeces,

Bone of man and beast, cornstalk and leaf.

Houses live and die: there is a time for building

And a time for living and for generation

And a time for the wind to break the loosened pane

And to shake the wainscot where the field mouse trots

And to shake the tattered arras woven with a silent motto. (E.C. 1-13)

London, following a bombing, World War II

London, following a bombing, World War II

“East Coker” was first published in 1940 during the early days of World War II.  Notice how that information casts a certain shadow on the lines I just read.  East Coker is a small village located in Somerset, England, and is the ancestral home of Eliot’s family before they immigrated to the “new world” in the 1600’s.  Eliot’s ashes are inurned in St. Michael’s Church in East Coker, thus making the opening lines even more poignant, “In the beginning is my end.”

The great cycles of life, whether it be the rising and falling of buildings and human structures, or the birth, growth, life celebrations, and passing of generations, there seems to be this epic succession of life.  Succession? Or is it a progression?  Ah, there’s the rub.  At times it seems to be just one day after the other in a never-ending circle of life, “SSDD” you would write in a Facebook post, or call it the rat-race of life, referencing a mouse’s maze or a hamster’s wheel in its cage.  “The more things change the more they stay the same,” we philosophize.  At other times it feels like there is movement, a progression even in the midst of the familiarity, the similarity of life.  “We’re making headway!” you proclaim!  “This ain’t your grandparents’ (fill in the blank.)

HampterWheel

Succession?

Progression?

Progression?

So what do we do with this conundrum of succession/progression?  We create rituals and sacraments.  That’s what we humans do.  Now, we don’t always confer such lofty titles as “ritual” and “sacrament” on our actions, but we humans make sense of the repetition of the seasons and the passing of the generations by creating simple to complex ways of marking the passages of time.  From gently scratching the interior roof of one’s car when going through a yellow light, to the coronation of kings and queens of tribes and nations, we create rituals to make sense of life’s repetitions.

And, hands down, the Church has been the bastion of ritual and sacrament.  Basing our actions on those of Jesus, as read in our scriptures today, we mark time by remembering births, the maturing of our young ones into adults, the giving and receiving of the bread and the cup, the commitment of friends to become life partners, and the farewells of our beloved as they slip through death’s door.  I chuckled in last week’s sermon, and again today, for I have become delighted that newer generations, after seeming to chuck out the window every ritual that smacked of “tradition,” have come full circle to discover the power of holy repetition and the deep meaning of sacred rituals…  albeit with their own emergent twist.

Eliot focuses on several rituals in “East Coker.”  He references weddings, communion, funerals, and even gives a nod to the ashes used in the Ash Wednesday services.  But in his first section, when he references weddings, using Old English to emphasize the ancient-yet-ever-new qualities of the rite, he echoes (again) the cadence-imbued language of Ecclesiastes:

Wedding of Brittany & Andrew at Franklin Circle Christian Church

Wedding of Brittany & Andrew at Franklin Circle Christian Church

Keeping time,

Keeping the rhythm in their dancing

As in their living in the living seasons

The time of the seasons and the constellations

The time of milking and the time of harvest

The time of the coupling of man and woman

And that of beasts.  Feet rising and falling.

Eating and drinking.  Dung and death.

Which reminds me so much of a groundbreaking, mind-blowing book of prayers that was given to me years ago in seminary: Edward Hays’ Prayers For A Planetary Pilgrim. (3)  In it he not only offers prayers for the passing of the seasons, Winter to Spring to Summer to Fall to Winter again, but he offers prayers for personal seasons.  Some are more traditionally sacred: A Prayer Before Silent Prayer or a Benediction at the End of Prayer Time.  Others are more earthy, and ring in an unfamiliar way in the ear: “Psalm For A Soggy Day,” “A Psalm When Pardon Is Impossible,” “The Ritual Of House Cleaning,” “The Ritual For Fingernail Trimming.”  What I love about Hays’ book of prayers and rituals is that he is honest about the patterns of our lives.  Some are epic, like the cycle of the seasons celebrated by musicians, poets, and artists throughout human history.  Some are profoundly personal, but nonetheless sacred in his, and my, estimation.

Baptism of Christ, Giotto di Bondone, 1304-06. Christus Rex

Baptism of Christ, Giotto di Bondone, 1304-06. Christus Rex

And this to me is the power of ritual and the grace of sacraments.  It was the fundamental mystery Jesus understood as he went to John to be baptized in the water of the River Jordan, when he attended the wedding in Cana with his mother and turned water into wine, when he took children into his lap and blessed them, when he cried as he headed toward Bethany upon hearing of his friend, Lazarus’ death, as he gathered in an upper room with his disciples with only bread and wine to mark the grandest moment of love in human, nay creation’s history.  We do not “do” rituals, we immerse ourselves in rituals, we become rituals, not because our parents or grandparents, or even our great great great grandparents expect us to, but because these tiny moments of repetition remind us that we are part of something larger than life itself, and that this swirling, mad and maddening, complex chaos called life can and does make sense.

I have learned this more truly and more sweetly the older I get.  With each passing death of a family member or a pillar of Franklin Circle Christian Church I invest myself in the rituals of my life, our lives, all the more.  Whether it be in turning the heat down at night before Craig and I go to bed, or receiving communion from a smiling or meditative deacon in worship, or dedicating a child to the glory of God, I see in each moment a glimpse of history itself, of God at work in ways too great for me to fathom except in that brief fleeting moment.  And life becomes more manageable, more real, more honest.  So I sing with Eliot,

The Rituals Of Home

The Rituals Of Home

Home is where one starts from. As we grow older

The world becomes stranger, the pattern more complicated

Of dead and living. Not the intense moment

Isolated, with no before and after,

But a lifetime burning in every moment

And not the lifetime of one man only

But of old stones that cannot be deciphered.

There is a time for the evening under starlight,

A time for the evening under lamplight

(The evening with the photograph album).

Love is most nearly itself

When here and now cease to matter.

In the name of Love, God, Christ, Spirit, You, Me, Then, Now, Love Yet To Be.

Amen.

(1) For more on the Ursuline Girl’s School see The Encyclopedia Of Cleveland History, at online to: http://ech.case.edu/cgi/article.pl?id=SPP

(2) For more on the Erie Indians in Cleveland see, The Encyclopedia Of Cleveland History, online at: http://ech.case.edu/cgi/article.pl?id=EI

(2) Order this from Cokesbury bookstore online at: http://www.cokesbury.com/forms/ProductDetail.aspx?pid=666420

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