Wednesday, September 26, 2018

Compassionate Sky

Picture above entitled "Sky" depicts an expansive stretch of empty desert with a cloudless blue sky.

"Compassionate Sky"

Rev. Paul Mitchell

Vashon United Methodist Church

September 23, 2018

Philippians 2:14-18; Mark 1:1-12

A few years ago, a friend from a church I had previously served called me from out of the blue, at a time of day when I knew he was at work. I knew instantly that something was wrong. A member of that church had died. The man was in his early forties with young children. The children had attended the weekday preschool at the church and the family had shown up for worship on occasion – mostly for Christmas and Easter and then more often when the dad started his battle with cancer. Few in that large church knew who the family was unless their children were in class together. My friend’s daughter had been in preschool with one of the children, and then again twice since entering elementary school. My friend sounded almost groggy, subdued, sad.
He said, “There’s nothing like this kind of loss to remind you what really matters.” He couldn’t say much more. I asked him if he was out on the road or at home in his office. He was home. I asked if he had been outside.
I said, “Bill, go outside, under the sky….”
Both death and the sky can put things in perspective for us, but the sky is open to possibility, even if it’s raining. Well, that day it wasn’t raining. It was glorious, and it is just what Bill needed. No words could console him. Nothing could tell him that he would never face the loss of his own daughters, his wife, his parents. The sky had nothing to say, no story to tell, no consolation or advice – none of which were needed by Bill in that moment.
The psalmist proclaims,
“the heavens are telling the glory of God;
and the firmament proclaims God’s handiwork.
Day to day pours forth speech,
and night to night declares knowledge.
There is no speech, nor are there words;
their voice is not heard;
yet their voice goes out through all the earth,
and their words to the end of the world.”
Unlike earth, humanity, and mountain, sky is intangible. You can’t touch it, despite the evocative poetic phrase “touch the sky.” The sky is not a place or a thing. It cannot be owned – though during the years I was practicing architecture in New York City, there was plenty of buying and selling of the sky through “air-rights transfer.”
The sky seems to go on forever – unlike our individual lives, it is unbounded. That thought is captured in the phrase, “the sky is the limit” – meaning, of course, there is nothing restricting the subject at hand. But to the pre-scientific mind, the sky was a thing. It was a barrier, a limit, a lid on creation. They even called it the “firmament” – as solid and tangible as earth.
It was as mysterious and beautiful as its Creator, carrying signs, messages, portents, life-giving rain, and death-dealing storms. Just imagine for a moment, the night sky before electric lights or airplanes, before the haze of industrial particulates that we have become so accustomed to that we don’t see them anymore.
I remember lying on the grass at Wesley Acres, the United Methodist campground in rural North Dakota when I was a teenager. It was in a valley and about twenty miles from the nearest town. On the summer weekends when I was a camp staffer we could shut off the yard lights and stare up into the cavernous night sky after the campfire had died down.
The Milky Way was so bright and distinct, we could just reach out and touch it. Earth seemed to drop away. You might even say we were in the sky, that the sky had come down to meet us, to include us in its embrace. Almost we could hear the stars singing. We felt so very small, so insignificant, and yet so loved, that we were given the gift of the sky.
We could hear God whispering to us,
“You are my child, my beloved, with you I am well pleased.”
You see, I don’t have any trouble with the image that Mark portrays at Jesus baptism – the sky opening and the voice speaking. I’ve had that experience. And I don’t have any trouble believing that there is a baptism of the Spirit for every child of God, and I believe that is it is inextricably and inexplicably bound to the open, intangible sky.
But I also don’t believe the sky is just up there. For one thing, our astronauts have passed through the sky and looked back on earth and humanity through it. Close your eyes for a moment and remember that image that they sent back of the little blue marble we live on. As wind/breath/spirit, the sky enters into us, into our lungs, into our cells, making our bodies the true union of earth and sky….
It’s a matter of where we choose to establish the line between earth and sky. Perhaps it’s a matter of living in the gap or the overlap – the both/and – the already but not yet. Can we live on earth and in heaven at the same time? Jesus thought so. He said that the kingdom of heaven literally “realm of sky” – was right at hand, as near as our breath, written on our hearts.
When we are baptized, we are saying that we fully expect the sky to open and the Word to enter our breath just like a wind. We fully expect that God will speak to us as well that commendation of who we are, whose we are, and that we are beloved.
The coincidence – the oneness – of human and divine made it possible for Jesus to hear that message of unconditional love virtually simultaneously with his baptism. For us, that message may come before or after our baptism, but part of baptism is expecting the message.
One caution though. Remember what happened next in the three synoptic gospels, Mark, Matthew, and Luke? Forty days in the wilderness. Temptation and trial. Doubt and challenge. We should expect that too.
The message that the sky brings puts life in perspective, but it does not spell out in detail how we should respond to the next challenge. We do not as Christians, strictly speaking, believe in the purported messages of the Zodiac. As tempting as it might seem, and as uncannily accurate as my horoscope sometimes seems, stellar birth signs are less Christian than Christmas trees or Easter bunnies. Still, that silent voice of empowerment and inspiration may come one day from out of the “blue,” and we may hear it, if we form ourselves to receive it.
I’d like to share a story that doesn’t have much to do with the “sky,” but which does have a lot to do with hearing that voice and responding with compassion when we are called.
One of the responsibilities of Nate Sears, a landscaper working at a housing complex on Cape Cod, is to check the piers at the adjacent beach for storm damage. One morning he was doing just that when he spotted a ten-foot pilot whale coming toward shore. He watched for a moment. He then saw a second whale, and a third, each one heading for land.
Stunned at first, Nate watched the approach of the whales in awe. Then his concern took over. Since it is not unusual for whales to beach themselves on Cape Cod, Nate knew that this was the probable intent of these large intelligent mammals.
He summoned a neighbor, who ran to call the National Sea Shore Service. Knowing the whales were coming so fast that they would be on the beach before help could arrive, Nate quickly waded out in the direction of the closest whale.
He caught up with it in waist-deep water on a sand bar. The whale was thrashing about, and Nate could see cuts on its body from the rocks and sand. Trusting impulse, Nate placed his hands on the whale and held them there.
The thrashing stopped.
The whale became completely still….
Nate said in that moment he became aware that this was the whale’s first encounter with the human species. It seems that both human and whale were operating on something other than experience, each trusting the other in an encounter that neither had experienced before.
After the whale had grown calm, Nate gently turned it around and pointed it away from shore. The whale began to swim back to sea. Nate approached the second whale. Again, he simply placed his hands on the creature and its thrashing stopped. Once this second whale grew still, Nate turned it away from shore. It, too, began to swim out.
By this time members of the National Sea Shore Service arrived, and they helped Nate turn the third whale back.
Frequently whales that threaten to beach themselves and are rescued come ashore in another location. That does not seem to be the case here. For whatever reason, the whales returned to their natural habitat without further incident. Although there is no proof, it may be that their encounter with Nate’s calm energy and his willingness to simply hold them, reorient them, and gently send them is what made the difference.
Nate knew nothing about whales. It was not his responsibility to help them. He was not prepared or equipped to “save the whales” that day. But at that place where the waters above and the waters below meet, where earth and sky touch, Nate heard a silent call and responded. He baptized those whales, repenting them toward the sea and the life that God intends for them.
We each have our responsibilities, our tasks, our duties. As we execute them we are placed in the world in ways that may yield an unexpected call from the sky to intercede on the behalf of God – if we are watching for the signs, and responsive to them. Each one of us stands on a shore, on the cusp of the known and the unknown.
Each one of us encounters systems that have strayed off course. Each of us has the capacity and power to risk an encounter that exercises cherishment, imagination, agency, and care, that realizes compassion and inclusion, forgiveness and charity. This week, as we look to the sky, as approaching autumn brings clouds and colors, sunshine and rain, let’s be open – like the sky.
Let’s be more than open. Let’s expect that God is calling us to see and hear the opportunities to gently intervene, to enter into the surf, to place our hands on life, to hold it and turn it, and send it back to the horizon where sky meets life. Thanks be to God for the gifts of Word and Spirit and sky.

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