Sunday, September 7, 2008

Ingathering Water Ceremony

OPENING WORDS: “Going to Walden” by Mary Oliver

It isn't very far as highways lie.
I might be back by night fall, having seen
The rough pines, and the stones, and the clear water.
Friends argue that I might be wiser for it.
They do not hear that far-off Yankee whisper:
How dull we grow from hurrying here and there!

Many have gone, and think me half a fool
To miss a day away in the cool country.
Maybe. But in a book I read and cherish,
Going to Walden is not so easy a thing
As a green visit. It is the slow and difficult
Trick of living, and finding it where you are.



a homily delivered by the Rev. Dr. Tim W. Jensen
at the First Parish Church in Portland, Maine
Ingathering Sunday September 7th, 2008

[extemp intro] VACATION -- Latin vacare -- “to make empty” Vacant, Vacuum, Vacuous... a time when we attempt to clear our calendars of obligations and responsibilities in order to “re-create” ourselves and return to our day to day lives refreshed and rejuvenated.

Of course, the Great Irony of a vacation like this is that often times we work so hard at trying to squeeze in as much leisure as we can into our so-called “free” time that we return to our ordinary lives more exhausted than when we left!

Yet at other times, unstructured emptiness isn’t really something we would choose either. This past six months, for instance, I’ve had a lot of free time pretty much imposed on me -- it’s not something I would have chosen for myself, but rather merely another unavoidable consequence of my illness, which at times has reduced the size of my world to the four walls of a hospital room. 

Trying to fill that emptiness in a meaningful way has been a real challenge: books, friends, television...and, of course, the Internet.... Especially the Internet, which can put all three of the others right at your fingertips 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Yet even 24/7 Always Online Real-Time Access (AORTA) can feel pretty empty when compared to something so simple as spending a day at the beach slumbering in the sun, and gazing out over a vast ocean.

One thing I did discover this summer though was a website called, which is basically nothing but a vast array of on-line Bible-study tools: GOOD Bible-study tools, of the sort designed to cultivate Biblical literacy rather than reinforcing Biblical literalism. So while many of you spent your summer vacations traveling to exotic destinations near and far, my summer was taken up by more of an inward journey... and in particular revisiting a couple of passages of Scripture that had been very important to me when I was still a seminarian, and which I discovered continue to reveal to me new insights even three decades later.

The first passage (or pericope as we were taught to call them) comes from the book of Genesis in the Hebrew Bible, and was actually the topic of the very first term paper I ever wrote at the Harvard Divinity School. I can't for the life of me recall today what I had to say back then, but I do remember thinking to myself at the time how impressed academia would be now that I had FINALLY written the definitive interpretation of this text, ...and what a rude awakening it was to receive back my paper with a big red "B-minus" scribbled on the cover, just below the color xerox of Paul Gaugin’s “Vision After the Sermon: Jacob Wrestling with the Angel” I’d discovered during my research and used as a frontispiece.

Jacob, as you may or may not recall from your days in Sunday School, was the younger of twin brothers, born “grasping at his brother’s heel,” yet destined by biology and tradition in that culture always to take the second place. But Jacob wasn’t satisfied with that destiny -- so he tricks both his brother Esau and his father Issac into giving him the blessing that would have ordinarily been the birthright of the firstborn. But this also didn't sit too well with his "family of origin," and compelled him to leave behind the land of his birth and live in exile with his mother’s brother Laban, in order to avoid any additional conflicts with his own.

And Jacob did quite well for himself working for his uncle and (eventually) father-in-law -- so well, in fact, that his cousins became jealous of him, and determined to take back the wealth they believed rightly belonged to them. And so once more Jacob was forced to flee from potential danger, only this time, instead of fleeing alone into the night carrying only a staff, he had an entire family of his own to think of: two wives, two maids, and (nearly) a dozen (male) children. Plus all of the flocks and herds and servants and retainers and various other hangers-on who would have made up his extended household.

And the only place he has to go is back to the land now ruled by his brother, whom he hasn’t seen in decades, and who Jacob fears may still harbor resentments over their last encounter, and greet him with hostility rather than hospitality. In fact, Jacob was so worried about this that he paused at the banks of the River Jordan, and divided his family into two companies, thinking that if Easu should find and attack the first company, the other might hear of it and escape.

And the Scripture tells us:

[22] [And Jacob] arose that same night and took his two wives and his two maids and his eleven children, and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. [23] He took them and sent them across the stream. And he sent across whatever he had.[24] So Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him till daybreak. [25] When the man saw that he could not overpower him, he touched the socket of Jacob's hip so that his hip was wrenched as he wrestled with the man. [26] Then the man said, "Let me go, for it is daybreak." But Jacob replied, "I will not let you go unless you bless me. [27] The man asked him, "What is your name" "Jacob," he answered. [28] Then the man said, "Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel, because you have struggled with God and with men and have prevailed." [29] Jacob said, "Please tell me your name." But he replied, "Why do you ask my name?" Then he blessed him there. [30] So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, "It is because I saw God face to face, and yet my life was spared." [31] The sun rose above him as he passed Peniel, and he was limping because of his hip....

It’s a common theme in much of the world’s folklore that to safely cross a body of water, one must somehow appease the local deity: water nymphs, or river imps, or the troll beneath the bridge. To learn their true name is to gain power over them, and thus permission to cross over their domain. But there is obviously a lot more going on here than that. A thousand years before Julius Caesar, Jacob is crossing his own version of the Rubicon. The opponent he wrestles with is none other than his own Creator, and the "true name" he learns is not God's, but his own.

And I remember at the time being struck by the heroic quality of it all: to have struggled with both men and with God, and have prevailed. But as the years have gone by I’ve come to learn the other half of this lesson: that when we wrestle with God, the BEST we can hope for is a stalemate, to see God face to face and live. And yes, we can still extort our blessing, by refusing to let go. Yet the struggle itself often leaves us crippled, and limping into the sunrise...undefeated, but hardly victorious.

[And of course it has to be the hip. Sciatica. How could I have possibly known at the time just how painfully crippling sciatica can be?]

The second passage comes from the 5th chapter of John’s Gospel; and despite its familiarity, it’s not one that I’d spent a lot of time studying before or since. But it was a favorite of my Clinical Pastoral Education supervisor, who directed my acute care hospital chaplaincy internship the summer following my first year of Divinity School, and so I heard it a lot that summer, and was frequently reminded of it this past summer as well as I sat waiting for a shower in my own hospital room. [Bethesda, by the way, means literally “the House of Kindness;” so you can see why it would be a popular name for a hospital, and why this would be such a popular passage of Scripture for a hospital chaplain.]

[2]Now there is at Jerusalem by the sheep market a pool, which is called in the Hebrew tongue Bethesda, having five porches. [3] In these lay a great multitude of impotent folk, of blind, halt, withered, waiting for the moving of the water. [4] For an angel went down at a certain season into the pool, and troubled the water: whosoever then first after the troubling of the water stepped in was made whole of whatsoever disease he had. [5] And a certain man was there, which had an infirmity thirty and eight years. [6] When Jesus saw him lie, and knew that he had been now a long time in that case, he saith unto him, Wilt thou be made whole? [7] The impotent man answered him, Sir, I have no [one], when the water is troubled, to put me into the pool: but while I am coming, another steppeth down before me. [8] Jesus saith unto him, Rise, take up thy bed, and walk. [9] And immediately the man was made whole, and took up his bed, and walked....

Then, of course, then there’s a big controversy (since it’s the Sabbath) about the legitimacy of Jesus performing miracles on that day, or whether or not it constitutes “work” to take up one’s bed and walk. And I’ve never really quite known what to make of all this myself either-- it always seemed like just another faith-healing story to me, a naive evocation of the power of positive thinking in the face of the reality of profound affliction.

But recently it dawned on me that this story isn’t really about faith healing at all. I mean, it’s not as if the man leaves his bed behind and gets down into the pool, which is what he originally hoped for in the first place. Instead Jesus asks him, “theleis (h)ugies genesthai -- “Wilt Thou be Made Whole?” -- do you wish, will you allow yourself, to be recreated -- to recognize and embody your own inescapable wholeness? Then "wake up, pick up your pallet, and walk!"

It’s not really something you believe: you either do it or you don’t. How are we to understand the relationship between the question and the command?  What is the connection between the Wish and the Will? How much of our healing is a product of our own effort, and how much is simply an openness to being and seeing ourselves as healed, as healthy, as whole?

You see, there’s that pesky root again: genesthai/to be made, to be created = Genesis, Generate, Generosity.

Seems like that word pops up a lot in my life these days.

It’s a miracle of a different order: not a belief that makes you something that you aren’t, but the recognition of who you truly are, and the essential integrity and wholeness that holds us together even in the face of profound brokenness as well.

And when we awaken to that wholeness, we discover as well our ability to walk again.

Even if it is with a pretty painful limp, and carrying our own bed....


(adapted from the Unitarian Universalist Church of Spokane, Washington)

This Water Ceremony is a uniquely Unitarian Universalist ritual. It symbolizes our coming together again at the close of the summer to bring our gifts and talents to the wider church community.

Summer is a season of rest and renewal. It is a time of travel. For some of us the travel was physical: going to a new area, experiencing new things. For others the travel was symbolic, or metaphorical: journeys inward toward landscapes unseen except in the mind’s eye. For some of us the Summer was a time of active Doing; for others it was time of reflective Being. Today we come together from our various journeys, walking our different paths alone together and together alone.

Each direction from which we may come has a metaphorical meaning. The East is the direction of Air: it is the place of sunlight, new beginnings, the spirit which like air stirs; it is Spring. The South is the direction of Fire: it denotes inspiration, passion and compassion as fire consumes and burns with zeal; it is Summer. The West is the direction of Water. Water heals: it denotes the calmness and the turbulence of the emotions. The West is the place of the sunset. It is Autumn. Finally, the North is the direction of Earth. It represents snow, darkness, and death: the completion of a cycle of life. It is the Winter.

Where are you coming from? What gifts of the journey do you bring back to our beloved community?

As we hear our readers once again describe each direction, I invite each of us to look within and decide from which direction we have come, and to line up accordingly here along the side aisle. Each of us will have an opportunity to pour our water into the large bowl symbolizing the pooling of our gifts, and the experience of our journeys. We will begin with the East and end with the North. And if you did not bring any water today, do not despair: there is another bowl from which you may take water to add to the larger bowl.


The East is the direction of the sunrise, of illumination, morning, springtime, new beginnings, new adventures, the hope that springs eternal. Will those who are symbolically coming from the East please come forward.

The South is the direction of the blazing sun, of fire, the tropics. It is the direction of the hustle and bustle of life itself, new ideas blossoming into fruition. Will those who are symbolically coming from the South please come forward.

The West is the direction of the sunset, of the fading of light, evening, the quieting of the senses. It is the direction of endings, finishing, getting affairs in order and completion. Will those who are symbolically coming from the West, please come forward.

The North is the direction of darkness, ice, cold, the Arctic. It is the winter of our souls. It is the direction of death, but not permanence, for death is part of the cycle of life. Will those who are symbolically coming from the North, please come forward.

Water is purity and water is life. Water is constantly moving: it is change, it is flux. Water is both many and it is one. The ocean is made up of infinite drops of water that alone do very little and together are invincible. And yet the invincibility of water can only be achieved through the conjoining of the individual drops.

This water is like our congregation. Each of us brings our individual gifts and hopes and joys, which alone are enough, but together are magnified and enhanced.

This water is a metaphor of our individual journeys joined together for the larger task of building a beloved community. Our directions are brought together in our axis mundi: the Center from which we gather the strength to act. The gifts we bring touch our hearts, stimulate our minds, and move us closer to the wholeness we seek in this life.

May the Waters of Life cleanse our Spirits and fill us with Hope and Vitality.

Amen, and Blessed Be....