“Finally Comes the Poet”
John 1:1-5, Matthew 5:14-16, Isaiah 40:25-31
Rev. Anne Weirich, April 2, 2017, 7pm
College Drive Presbyterian Church
The first several times that I drove into New Concord – about four years ago – I always came on on highway 40. During my interviews, the church had been putting me up at one of the hotels at Airport Road, and it was late April – just as the redbud trees are starting to show their beautiful blossoms. I think that the search committee wanted me to see the how pretty that drive can be.
When I came to New Concord to move here – later in July – I came all the way to the 83 exit. My friend was behind me driving the moving van and we thought it might be better to stay on 70 as long as possible.
I’ll never forget my first view of the village from the Interstate. I hadn’t quite realized just how much the university and parts of town are really quite like a city on the hill.
Most of the time, when I’ve seen cities on hills, the prominent buildings on the ridge are the churches. And it’s true that it’s easy to catch a glimpse of Westminster Church from the highway.
But it’s really the buildings of the university that stand out.
I remember appreciating the image. I liked the idea that perhaps there was a great deal of thought that may have gone into placing the first building – right to the north here – on a promontory.
It’s good way to raise up the importance of education I suppose – by putting the buildings high on a hill.
The Presbyterians who helped build places like Muskingum University certainly held education in high esteem. When asked about the greatest commandment, Jesus said, that we were to “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’” (Luke 10:27) Presbyterians and their Congregationalist colleagues took the “with all your mind” seriously and supported all kinds of education for children and adults.
Heart-love for God – soul-love for God – these are gifts I think. We were made for God and our hearts and souls or spirits are restless and searching for God. We can strengthen these aspects of our love for God through practices like prayer and worship and reaching out compassion and practicing grace through seeking reconciliation. This is how we love in strength. We focus – we increase the strength of our lens – on these practices and connections to bring ourselves closer to God.
When we love God with our minds, I think it’s a bit different.
I think it is this aspect of loving God that calls us out in the world in ways that can be stunning in richness. When we love God with our minds, we exercise our minds – we discipline our minds to study the world around us. With eyes of faith, we seek out the secrets God has hidden there for us to discover. And if we are loving God with our minds, and getting it right – then we use what we find for good and we teach what truth we have learned to the next generation, and we grow in wonder at the “Creator of the ends of the earth. [Who] does not faint or grow weary; [whose] understanding is unsearchable.”
It can work the other way, too. Sometimes the elegance or the mystery that the mind encounters while searching out the way things work in the world, can overcome us with the knowledge that there is something – some power – some force for life – that must be the ground of all being. So our minds, engaged in the work of academia, can lead us to love God.
I believe we love God with our minds, because God is Mind – a mind that is so immense that it is unsearchable, says Isaiah.
What could be more indicative of that than one of our names for the Lord – the name Word? “In the beginning was the Word.” God spoke us – used language – to bring us into the world. And words – language – is one of the great repositories of our knowledge. Our minds – and our souls and our hearts – are quenched from the endless well of words that is God still speaking. God still creates, still uses speech to give strength to our fainting, weary efforts….helping us, lifting us, so that even when we are most exhausted, most dejected, confused, depleted or discouraged, we suddenly find ourselves soaring easily like a kettle of eagles in a morning thermal. We are renewed – given life – revived by the Word – by the Mind of God.
And when the Word brings life, it brings light, too….
So when we love God with our minds, we are seeking God’s light – which chases away the darkness in all its forms.
As those who love the light – those who love with our minds – we are then called to run that light up the hill – to show how God’s mind works in us and in the world.
We say, “Have you not known? Have you not heard?”
We say, “Don’t hide, don’t despair. Lift your eyes on high and see what the Mind of God has brought to light! Put it high on the lamp stand!”
This is certainly the Word that the second prophet of the great Isaiah prophecy was bringing to Israel.
There had been 160 years of silence between the end of Chapter 39 and these words of comfort to the exiled people of God in Chapter 40.
Conquerors and political infighting and corruption had decimated God’s people and now they wept, the Psalmist tells us, by the rivers of Babylon. The Temple and the holy city on the hill, Jerusalem, were in ruins. And Isaiah was sent by God to bring a word of healing and hope and restoration to God’s people.
And this healing and hope was not only spoken to the heart and the soul and spirit of the people of God. It was spoken in concrete terms. This was to be a restoration of all things. The Word of God, the Mind of God spoke and said that everything was going to be reordered.
And this is because God spoke to Israel with a very special kind of word … the Mind of God was given to the exhausted, weary, fearful, broken and dispersed people as lines of poetry.
Walter Bruggeman writes – with great vocabulary and gusto,
It is an intellectual travesty, such an act of chutz-pah, such a subversive poetic utterance that dumps a poem in the midst of resignation. The poem works a newness, not because it is good poetry, but because the subject of the poem, the God who lives in and through and with and under such outrageous assertions, is at work overriding despair, inviting hope, responding to our waiting and starting the world free again, outside the regimes of weariness… The key religious question among us is whether there is grounds for an alternative rooted not in self-preoccupation or in deadening stability but rooted in a more awesome reality that lives underneath empires, that comes among us as an odd poem, as inscrutable as power, as dangerous as new life, as fragile as waiting. The poet names the name and imagines new life, like eagles flying, running, walking.(A Way Other Than Our Own, Westminster/John Knox:Louisville, 2017, p. 58-59.)
So, when we love God with our minds – we are called – I think – to this ‘intellectual travesty’ of poetry.
To quote the preacher Bruggeman again, “poets speak against a prose world.” (Finally Comes the Poet,” Augsburg Fortress: Mnpls, 1989, p. 3.) And a prose world isn’t bad. But it can be settled into complacency and riddled with disinformation or “alternative facts.”
When we love God with our minds, we are capable of the kind of speech that raises us up. Not by proclaiming doctrine or parsing morality or solving problems. But by bringing an alternative word – a poem – about an existence that is formed by the Word and mind and heart and strength of God.
Our poetry – whether it’s preaching from a pulpit or a formula inscribed on a white board in a classroom or scattered in the notes and staff of a musical score or a proposal at the board of trustees meeting, teamwork on the basketball court or the compassion needed to tend the sick or when we prepare a lesson plan or defend a dissertation or a point of history or politics or philosophy – our poetry is needed. Poetry is the language of God – prophetic language that has power – “shattering, evocative speech that breaks fixed conclusions and presses us always toward new, [even] dangerous [and] imaginative possibilities.” (Ibid., p. 6)
The title of this sermon came from the poet Walt Whitman. He wrote,
After the seas are all cross’d, (as they seem already cross’d,) After the great captains and engineers have accomplish’d all their work, After the noble inventors, after the scientists, the chemist, the geologist, ethnologist, Finally shall come the poet worthy that name, The true son of God shall come singing his songs. (“Passage to India,” 5:1101-5 Leaves of Grass, Mentor Books: NY, 1954, p. 324.)
In other words, God will have the final word.
And if we be poets in the meantime, we will shine the light of our alternative realities – from this village on the hill – into a future that we cannot quite see.
This is how we show that we cherish the truth – that we are open to the truth – that we are not afraid of the truth that can break the fearful realities that can bind us and divide us and reduce us to a fainthearted and stumbling people.
And, Dr. Susan Hassler… even though I’ve known you for just a little while… I think you can receive the mantle of inauguration as a poet. Already, we’ve seen your grace and openness and energy and imagination. I think we’ve even seen a little chutz-pah. You seem to know already about loving God and others with your mind.
And I believe I can speak for us all to say that we look forward to your inauguration into this calling as President at Muskingum University.
I think the time is right for your poetry here.
And, I can’t help but smile and be struck by what I consider an act of poetry in the word “inauguration.”
The word itself is rooted in the French term for install or consecrate. But in the deeper meaning – the Latin root – it infers that these installations need to take place when the time is right. The root word is “augury.” Augury is the practice of searching in creation for the signs of the right time for moving forward.
The Latin word inaugurare means to “take omens from the flight of birds before consecrating or installing.” (http://www.dictionary.com/browse/inauguration?s=t)
Seems like the one true poet is bringing us right back to the promised flight of eagles…
Sounds poetic in the deepest sense of that word…
Poetic, meaning we may we all take heart that as we move toward to your inauguration on Friday, as we move into the whole future beyond where we can see, we can be sure that we are carried along on the wings of eagles – with our way illuminated by the light of the Holy One – the Word – the Poet – the Everlasting God.
AmenRev. Anne Weirich
Currently the pastor at College Drive Presbyterian Church in New Concord, OH – home of Muskingum University and John Glenn – Anne is a graduate of Princeton Seminary (MDiv. 1998.) Prior to this, she has served a UCC church on Cape Cod, Claremont Presbyterian Church in CA, and Westminster, Grand Rapids, MI and First Presbyterian in Lansing, MI. She travels annually to the Holy Land, leading pilgrimages and has also worked with many PCUSA mission activities and partners including PDA in New Orleans, the Border Ministry and the World Communion of Reformed Churches. Currently Anne serves on the executive committee of the General Assembly Committee for Ecumenical and Interfaith Relations.