Will The Circle Be Unbroken?

I want to thank Joanna and the choir for taking my adapted words to this old time spiritual and putting it to music so beautifully! What a treat. The original song was written by Alda Haberson, concerning the death, funeral, and mourning of her mother. (Wikipedia, 2008) The song was meant to be a question of faith: would we be prepared to meet our loved ones in heaven through our atonement with Jesus or to hell because of our lack of faith. Of course, I have a different take on the relationship between the here and now and the thereafter. As I mentioned last week, I believe the real work of making heaven is in front of us right here on earth.

So let me give away the store right up front. I believe the circle is by nature broken, but we have the chance to make it whole. Let me re-tell an old story from the Hebrew Bible, the story of Jacob and Esau. Jacob and his twin brother Esau are the children of Rebecca and Isaac, the son of Abraham. Jacob, whose name means “to trip up,” is literally holding on to his slightly older brother Esau’s heel. Although Esau is the older and stronger brother, he is rather dim-witted, and while Esau is the favorite of his father, his mother Rebecca favors the more cunning and smoother Jacob. Through his young life Jacob gets his way by wile and tricks, and with the help of his mother, even cheats his older brother out of his inheritance by dressing up in sheep skins and presenting himself as Esau to his blind father for the blessing. Well, as the saying goes, what comes around goes around, and in time, his cheating ways catch up with him and he is finally forced to move away from Canaan. As time went on he was indentured to his father-in-law Laban twice, after having been cheated into marrying his first daughter, Leah, when he thought he was marrying the younger one, Rachel, whom he finally did marry after another term in servitude. Finally, wiser and humbled, Jacob leaves Laban and decides to return to Canaan to face his brother whom he had cheated out of the family estate. The night before he is to cross the Jordan back into his homeland Jacob is attacked by a mysterious being, an angel, and they fight until dawn. Jacob, wounded, is renamed Israel, he who struggles with God. The next day, anxious and worried for his life, Jacob, aka Israel, meets his brother Esau who, rather than striking him, embraces him. The circle is made whole.

What is it that helps us see the hell of our making and turn it around towards heaven? Sadly, we must first suffer our own sins. As a young man I was incredibly angry at the world. Not that I had much reason to be; I had graduated near the top of my class, married, was even given a beautiful home on the shores of a lake by my in-laws at the time. But something in me was raging. I would slam doors, break dishes, scare away customers. Eventually I scared away my first wife and lost my business as well. Then came the drugs and the booze. This was my time to wander in the wilderness, as Jacob had done. It wouldn’t be until much later, long after I had married Frances that I would find my way home and make peace with myself. I can’t say I have found heaven yet, but the circle is not nearly as broken as it once was.

What would it take for you to mend your own circles? How can we be bring healing and holiness to our lives, this long pause between the bookends of birth and death? For me it begins, much as it did with Jacob, with a wrestling of what we believe into what we do. We say we believe in the inherent worth of each individual, but can we really say that human worth doesn’t depend on what we do with it? I don’t think so. In fact, how we live our lives is, for me, the first and most important step to closing the circle of strife and creating a bit of heaven on earth. Here, I hold to a sort of modified version of the ancient Hindu concept of karma, you reap what you sow, so start sowing the better seed.

Specifically, listen to our friends and family as if they were vital to your life. Be sure you are putting into your body what your body needs, remember the mantra of our last Thanksgiving from Michael Pollan, “eat food, not too much, mostly plants,” and avoid, as I have resolved to do this year, drugs of all kinds. Beyond that, ask yourself is what we are doing is in line with your values, both in livelihood and spare time. “Right thinking follows right livelihood,” preached the Buddha. Is this the year, in midst of turmoil to change your vocation? (I always have to be careful about this: one middle-aged man in a congregation I served wanted to quit his high six-figure advertising exec job to go into consulting, which I urged him to do –his wife didn’t speak to me for a year).

The point is not to shame you into living an integrated life, but to point out to you that our religious understanding of heaven here on earth require us to walk the talk; so that when the shadow of death passes over us and calls us on, we will die as we lived. In fact, Teri tells me, this is a truism of hospice, we die as we lived. If we lived at least attempting to be fair, compassionate and most of all brave, chances are we will die that way as well.

Of course, there is much we can’t change. My heart is breaking over the carnage we are seeing in Gaza this week. This past week during the UU minister’s meeting up here on the Hill, of which I am the convener, I offered a prayer for peace, asking the Spirit to infuse a sense of responsibility into the leaders of both sides that they might remember who they really serve; not ideologies but people, and call for a cease fire. Like the story of Jacob and Esau we are witnessing the struggle between two brothers for the fate of a blessing. May at least one have grown up enough since.

Will the circle be unbroken? Not if we can come to grips generations hence, with the reality that we are all in this together. That the world we have, this broken and wounded world, is still the home of Eden. I don’t believe in Armageddon as a theological necessity, but I do believe that like human worth, we have the potential to destroy what we have created. The question is whether we, here, right now can make that heaven on earth a possibility.

Before I die I want finish the work of integration. I want to live a balanced life, eating right, sleeping well, loving you the people I serve. Before I die, I want to have lived my faith, built up churches that have the potential to save the world, love my family with all my heart, die depleted of wealth (that won’t be hard), knowing I gave it to who needed it most. Before I die, I want to know that I did what I could to make the world a better place, and though I will die incomplete (we all do, I guarantee it), I want to have cried at loss, laughed at misfortune, and stared down adversity with a smile. I want what I do to fully fill what I believe. I want my circle to be complete as it can be. As my colleague Forrest Church preached just before he went in to hospice to die:

“For us to be here in the first place, for us to earn the privilege of dying, more than a billion billion accidents took place. Even the one in a million sperm’s connections with the equally unique egg is nothing compared to everything else that happened from the beginning of time until now to make it possible for us to be here….

“What a luxury we enjoy wondering what will happen after we die, even what will happen before we die…..We see little of the road ahead or the sky above. And the dust we raise clouds our eyes, leaving only brief interludes to contemplate the stars. All we can do, every now and again, is to stop for a moment and look….Morning has broken and we are here…breathing the air…admiring the slant sun as refracts through…windows and dances…calling us to attention, calling us homeward. (“Love and Death” adapted from a sermon delivered at All Souls Unitarian Church, New York, Feb. 3, 2008. Printed in The World, Summer 2008)

Calling us to attention. That work of paying attention to the world and our actions in this world has another name: What the ancients called Atonement. At-one-ment with creation, with the creator if you will, with the spirit, heaven on earth. My colleague Susan Lamar, and our own Diane Hayden’s cousin wrote:

“Atonement is some of the hardest work there is. It happens exactly at the intersection of individual and community. The liturgical act of placing sins (before God, reminds us of how fragile and human we are) …. And yet because it is a liturgical act—part of the work of all the people, collectively—it also, like all good liturgical acts, is a reminder that we are not alone in our need. We all make mistakes. We all fall down.

“We all bear responsibility for creating a community, nation and world that listens and hears and looks and sees. It is an act of visioning, first, an act of seeing in our mind’s eyes a promised land, a beloved community, a world made whole.

And then it is an act of the will—the will to keep trying, even when we stumble and fall, and when it seems just too hard to get back up again. It is an act of the will to see through another’s eyes. …. Communities have to do it collectively. But the work can only really happen collectively if it first happens in the hearts of individuals. In my heart, and your heart.” (From QUEST 2008).

Will the circle be unbroken? The question is rather will the circle be mended? Behind me on the memorial wall outside is a slightly broken circle that represents the on-going work before us. I believe we will heal the wounds of our time, and meet our ancestors in the spirit of love and reconciliation, long after we have been gone, our whole lives, will bring a heaven to earth, by and by Lord, by and by. Amen.

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