Sermon For Sunday, February 23, 2014

Exodus 20:8-11 & T.S. Eliot’s poem, “Dry Salvages”

“The Waters Of Time Roll On”

Today is the third 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 the poem “Dry Salvages” go online to: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qpuzIoso-44

To watch a video of Pastor Allen’s sermon, go online to: http://youtu.be/N_utxA7Lvw0

Along The Cuyahoga River, Photo by Allen V. Harris

Along The Cuyahoga River, Photo by Allen V. Harris

As with so many great cities around the world, Cleveland has been defined as much by the river that runs through it as almost any other single geographical factor.  Previously even more winding and “crooked” than it is today, the river defined the life of this city in so many ways, from providing the Erie and the Iroquois peoples rich grounds for swimming, fishing, dancing, and hunting, as immortalized in the R.E.M. song “Cuyahoga,” (1) to offering ease of navigation for industrialists like John D. Rockefeller and his Standard Oil Company and J.P. Morgan’s U.S. Steel Company (2), the river insured the land around its opening would be treasured for generations to come.  In more recent years, as bad luck would have it, that same river has served as a symbol for all things that were not well with our modern metropolises, from deep-seated racism to environmental degradation.  Regardless, almost in defiance of such human disregard, the mighty river rolls on.

T. S. Eliot

T. S. Eliot

T. S. Eliot, in his third poem in the series he gathered as the classic poetry set, “The Four Quartets,” uses the river as his foundational image, as well as the sea by extension.  It seems Eliot had some acquaintance with the majestic Mississippi River from his childhood in America, but it feels like he almost knew our meandering Cuyahoga itself when he ponders,

I do not know much about gods; but I think that the river

Is a strong brown god—sullen, untamed and intractable,

Patient to some degree, at first recognised as a frontier;

Useful, untrustworthy, as a conveyor of commerce;

Then only a problem confronting the builder of bridges.

The problem once solved, the brown god is almost forgotten

By the dwellers in cities—ever, however, implacable.

Keeping his seasons and rages, destroyer, reminder

Of what men choose to forget. Unhonoured, unpropitiated

By worshippers of the machine, but waiting, watching and waiting.

Could he have known how much commerce would be amplified inordinately by this river –  only a stone’s throw from us right now?  Could Eliot

Bridge Across The Cuyahoga, Photo by Allen V. Harris

Bridge Across The Cuyahoga, Photo by Allen V. Harris

have envisioned the multitude of bridges, many brightly lit at night, that span its bends and twists?  Could he have imagined how so many forgot, or tried to forget, the power that this river has, only to be reminded of its “rages” when the torrents of runoff from snow emergencies and rainstorms threaten to make it overflow it’s normal boundaries?

It is most fitting for Eliot to use the image of rivers and seas to talk about the mighty flow of time throughout our lives.  “There is no end, but addition: the trailing

Consequence of further days and hours,” he pines.  “Where is the end of them…” the poet wonders, then answers, “There is no end of it…”   Having grounded us in the rolling river, Eliot then interweaves musings of time with images of prayer and annunciation, thus turning our thoughts to things more worshipful.  There is no great leap of imagination to cause one to think of the ancient and great marker of time for we who are in the Judeo-Christian tradition: the Sabbath.

Waters of the mighty Mississippi River, in Minneapolis, MN; Photo by Allen V. Harris

Waters of the mighty Mississippi River, in Minneapolis, MN; Photo by Allen V. Harris

The Creation of Light, George Richmond, 1826. Tate Gallery

The Creation of Light, George Richmond, 1826. Tate Gallery

From the first grand shaping of creation and time itself, the final marker for work well done was the Sabbath day, the seventh day.  Throughout the Hebrew and Christian scriptures, Sabbath was defined as that countercultural act of both resistance to human attempts to “be god,” and the greatest act of devotion to the only one who was God… is God.  Though never using the word, Eliot still captures the power of Sabbath as an act of remembering what is deeper, most important in his life when he writes,

It seems, as one becomes older,

That the past has another pattern, and ceases to be a mere sequence—

Or even development: the latter a partial fallacy

Encouraged by superficial notions of evolution,

Which becomes, in the popular mind, a means of disowning the past.

The moments of happiness—not the sense of well-being…

Pharaoh forces the Hebrew slaves to work without rest.

Pharaoh forces the Hebrew slaves to work without rest.

But, like city-dwellers and bridge-spanners tend to forget the mighty river that rolls underneath them, so we, like passengers on a train or plane, tend to forget to mark the passage of time with moments of rest, of unfettered time, of Sabbath.  Why is this?  Why do so few of us remember to take time off – completely off from not only work, but also worry – until we are forced to by illness, or suffering, or even death?  Well, the great biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann would remind us that we have been duped by the powers that be, the Pharaohs of our lives, into believing we are being judged by our productivity and our performance, rather than our faithfulness to God, which is never dependent upon how many bricks we produce.  Brueggemann writes extensively about this, but sums it up:

So what is it that makes people like us weary?  It is not working too hard that makes us weary.  It is rather, I submit, living a life that is against the grain of our true creatureliness…, being placed in a false position so that our day-to-day operation requires us to contradict what we know best about ourselves and what we love most about our life as children of God.  Exhaustion comes from the demand that we be, in some measure, other than we truly are; such an alienation requires too much energy to navigate. (3)

Like the river, we are forced into new patterns to try and make us more and more productive.  So we try to speed up time by making our trains faster and our wait time at the RTA station or Hopkins as minimal as possible, we try to make our lives more and more productive.  Imagining God as Pharaoh or big boss or Industrialist Tycoon we try to please God by making Sundays anything but Sabbath days and then spend the rest of the week feeling horrible that we haven’t laid at the feet of a demanding God enough prayers or offerings or service or study or whatever.  Brueggeman goes on to say,

But of course it is never enough, for our anxious sense of responsibility will never touch the truth of creation.  For the truth of creation, without any regard for us or our need to make it right, is that God has ordained the world in its abundance; it will perform its life-giving exuberance without us, as long as we do not get in the way.  Our exhaustion, I propose, is rooted in anxiety that mistrusts the abundance that God has ordained into creation and, as a result, we – like the creator on the sixth day – have our naphshim [our whole selves] completely depleted.  But we, unlike the creator, take no seventh day for refreshment, because, unlike the creator, we are too anxious to rest.” (4)

FCCC at Worship

FCCC at Worship

This is why we must engage in the spiritual disciplines of the faith, the most primary one being Sabbath rest.  While the language may seem to call us to the exact opposite, spiritual “disciplines” allow us to relax, let go of unnecessary things, and put life into perspective.  Whether it be the discipline of prayer – like the lady, the women, who pray for all those in ships on the sea – or the disciplines of study, confession, service, almsgiving, hospitality, or Sabbath-keeping, disciplines put us

Here between the hither and the farther shore

While time is withdrawn, [so we can] consider the futureIMG_4718

And the past with an equal mind.

At the moment which is not of action or inaction

Which is a quite wonderful place from which to view one’s life and the depth of meaning of God’s love.

And what is the purpose then of all this discipline, if it is not to make us more and more productive workers or citizens or Christians?  Perhaps it is simply and only a way to help us to be most fully ourselves, the very beings God created us to be.  Which is another way of saying to be invested in our lives, embodied in our bodies, incarnated

For most of us, there is only the unattended

           Moment, the moment in and out of time,

           The distraction fit, lost in a shaft of sunlight,

           The wild thyme unseen, or the winter lightening

           Or the waterfall, or the music heard so deeply

           That it is not heard at all, but you are the music

           While the music lasts. These are only hints and guesses,

           Hints followed by guessed; and the rest

           Is prayer, observance, discipline, thought and action.

           The hint half guessed, the gift half understood, is

                                    Incarnation.

Amen.

(1) For more on the R.E.M. song, go online to: http://www.songfacts.com/detail.php?id=6897

(2) For more on Cleveland industrialists, go online to: http://ech.case.edu/cgi/article.pl?id=IASI

(3) Walter Brueggemann, “The Sabbath Voice Of The Evangel,” in Mandate To Difference: An Invitation To The Contemporary Church (2007: Westminster/John Knox Press, Louiseville) p. 42

 

(4) Ibid, pp. 42-43

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