“What would happen if one woman told the truth about her life? / The world would split open.”
Poet Muriel Rukeyser

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Grace and Serendipity

This is one of those occasions when there is nothing one can really say about what is going in the life of the congregation, and yet every reason to convey a nonanxious presence. Here is a reflection on the Proper 16B, 1 Kings 8: 22-30, 41-43; Psalm 84, with the intention of being light....

After church, Robbie tells his parents he has to go and talk to the minister right away. They agree and the pastor greets the family.
"Pastor," Robbie says, "I heard you say today that our bodies came from the dust."

"That's right, Johnny, I did."

"And I heard you say that when we die, our bodies go back to dust."

"Yes, I'm glad you were listening. Why do you ask?"

"Well you better come over to our house right away and look under my bed 'cause there's someone either comin' or goin'!"

What makes a joke funny? The way in which it points to the truth about human nature? The playfulness of an unexpected outcome?

Our scripture readings this morning point us take a good look at the ways and places in which we are aware of God’s presence – and the ways in which unexpected joy manifests.

For Solomon, in 1 Kings, and the ancient Hebrews, God was found in the temple. People came to the temple to be in the presence of God and people drew security from the idea that God was in that space. And yet, as Solomon notes, the Temple points beyond a literal presence of God to the deeper, uncontained reality of God: “Even heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain you, much less this house that I have built.”

God is mystery and comes to us in unexpected ways.

A priest and an astronomer find themselves sitting together on a night flight. After introductions and a long gaze out the window, the astronomer asks the priest, "Can't all religions be summed up by stating the Golden Rule?" The priest pauses a bit and asks the astronomer, "Can't all astronomy be summed up by singing ‘Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star’?”

God is always more than we can imagine or describe. The ancient Hebrew people in 1 Kings, recognize that God is more than a building – God can dwell in a place but God is not contained by a place.

God is mystery and comes to us in unexpected ways.

Several years ago, psychiatrist Scott Peck wrote a national bestseller called “The Road Less Traveled.” It was filled with what he had learned about life from his work with people with all sorts of mental health issues. One thing he observed was a tendency toward health and wellness even among patients who had reasons to seek psychiatric help. Some of these people had survived serious emotional traumas much better than the circumstances seemed to warrant, and Peck came to think of a force of goodness in the world. He eventually identified this force using the word "serendipity," which the dictionary defines as "the gift of finding valuable or agreeable things not sought for."

As a Christian, Peck also realized that the word "grace" fit that definition too. So in the book, he wrote extensively about this force, using both words. Associating grace with serendipity was one of his original contributions to the subject of grace.

Several years later, Peck was on a flight to Minneapolis. He usually took advantage of flying time to do some writing, so when a man took the seat next to him, Peck gave the usual nonverbal signals one gives when one doesn't want to engage in conversation. The man soon buried himself in a novel, and they flew side by side in silence for most of the flight. Finally, the man looked up from his novel and said, "I hate to bother you, but you don't happen, by any chance, to know the meaning of the word 'serendipity,' do you?"

Peck responded that as far as he knew, he was the only person who had written a substantial portion of a book on the subject, and that it was perhaps serendipity that at the precise moment the man wanted to know the meaning of the word, he happened to be sitting next to an authority on the subject: serendipity: "the gift of finding valuable or agreeable things not sought for."

God is mystery and comes to us in unexpected ways. – grace and serendipity.


Some might say that Psalm 84 is about grace and serendipity.

“How lovely is your dwelling place, O LORD of hosts! My soul longs, indeed it faints for the courts of the LORD; my heart and my flesh sing for joy to the living God. Even the sparrow finds a home, and the swallow a nest for herself, where she may lay her young, at your altars, O LORD of hosts, my King and my God. Happy are those who live in your house, ever singing your praise.”

Joy – the unexpected presence of God that fills our hearts with laughter and delight - is expressed in this Psalm. Joy – what we feel in times of serendipity and grace. Perhaps laughter itself is an unexpected gift from God. Studies have been done in the medical world proving that laughing contributes to our health and wellbeing.

I recently watched a video on the internet about a phenomenon taking place in our world. People, whole groups of people, gathering at beaches and health clubs and retreat centers, just to laugh. It’s bizarre and funny to watch the video – the group gathers, then the leader begins to laugh. Big deep belly laughter. Soon another person laughs, and then another, and soon the entire group is laughing. For five minutes. Just laughing. And this, they say, is making people healthier and happier. Who would have thought? Serendipity? Grace? Perhaps. Of God, maybe?
So this morning, let’s remind ourselves to take time out for joy, for laughter, for those grace-filled serendipitous moments of God.

And, with that I leave with one more joke – old, but worth repeating:

Jesus was wandering around Jerusalem when he decided that he really needed a new robe. After looking around for a while, he saw a sign for Finkelstein, the Tailor. So, he went in and made the necessary arrangements to have Finkelstein prepare a new robe for him.

A few days later, when the robe was finished, Jesus tried it on -- and it was a perfect fit! He asked how much he owed. Finkelstein brushed him off: "No, no, no, for the Son of God there's no charge! However, may I ask for a small favor. Whenever you give a sermon, perhaps you could just mention that your nice new robe was made by Finkelstein, the Tailor?" Jesus readily agreed and as promised, extolled the virtues of his Finkelstein robe whenever he spoke to the masses.

A few months later, while Jesus was again walking through Jerusalem, he happened to walk past Finkelstein's shop and noted a huge line of people waiting for Finkelstein's robes. He pushed his way through the crowd to speak to him and as soon as Finkelstein spotted him he said: "Jesus, Jesus, look what you've done for my business! Would you consider a partnership?" "Certainly," replied Jesus.

"Jesus & Finkelstein it is."
"Oh, no, no," said Finkelstein.
"Finkelstein & Jesus. After all, I am the craftsman."

The two of them debated this for some time. Their discussion was long and spirited, but ultimately fruitful -- and they finally came up with a mutually acceptable compromise. A few days later, the new sign went up over Finkelstein's shop, it read:

Lord and Taylor.