Carter Heyward was a guest in the Pullen pulpit on this day. Carter is a feminist theologian, teacher and priest in the Episcopal Church. In 1974, she was one of eleven women whose ordinations eventually paved the way for the recognition of women as priests in the Episcopal Church in 1976. She currently lives in Brevard, NC.
Texts: Philippians 4:4-7; Isaiah 61:1-3; Luke 4:18-19
Good morning! I’m delighted to be back at Pullen, a church I have long admired. I visited here in the early 80s at the invitation of Mahan Siler and was so inspired by the courage of this parish. Thank you, Nancy, and thank you, people of Pullen, for having me return.
There is so much to say, and so little, about “joy” – not simply “happiness” but that deepest sense of well-being and delight that comes when “we open to that Spirit of Love, Justice, Joy, Compassion, that is ever and eternally opening to us.” It is what the great leaders of ALL spiritual traditions that are grounded in love have known and practiced and taught: that the Spirit of Love, which we Western Christians commonly call “God,” or “the Lord,” Father and Mother of Jesus and all the Saints…this God is not only with us always but, more radically, is in us, working through us, opening more and more to us, inviting us to open more and more to Her, or Him.
In Martin Buber’s famous imaging of “I and Thou,” what Buber and other Jewish, Islamic, and Christian mystics are really saying is that I am opening to Thee just as Thou art opening to me. Our faith is a matter of perceiving what is actually happening all the time, though we are able to see it, catch it, only in intimations and glimpses in those places in ourselves that are most vulnerable – open – to seeing what is really going on – again in mystical language – in seeing through the eyes of God.
This morning I want to talk about finding joy in our own lives – in places of the heart. I’m not speaking this morning primarily about places in the world, as important as those places are as resources for joy for us – our involvement in social justice movements like Moral Monday, hospice work, food pantries, political advocacy for victims of poverty, violence, injustice, etc, all those places in this state of North Carolina today, for example, where we need to be working together for justice, and finding joy in our work. This parish has a long, remarkable history of justice advocacy. Pullen is a beacon of hope for our state and world, and I could happily stand here and praise you for the next 15 minutes, and find joy in doing so, but that’s not primarily what I want us to think about today.
I invite you instead to breathe deeply and imagine that you and I are longtime workers in a field hospital in the midst of battle. You’ll perhaps recognize this image as Pope Francis’ suggestion of what the church needs to be today: a field hospital, where we are all working with wounded soldiers. I’ll take it a step further which may be where the Pope is heading if he heeds his own spiritual advice, unlike most Popes and Bishops. We who find ourselves on the edges of organized religion – we are not simply the healers. Not simply the doctors and nurses and orderlies. We are also in need of healing ourselves. We are both the healers and those who need help. We are the doctors and we are the wounded. We are often more one than the other; and often both at once – able to participate in healing sisters and brothers even as – or perhaps because – we ourselves yearn to be touched and healed. That is very much my role this morning, and most mornings, truth be told, to be both the healer and the healed, or, in the words of feminist songwriter/singer Chris Williamson, to be both “the changer and the changed.”
The thing about it is, that’s where the joy is most deeply sourced – in being BOTH changer and changed, healer and healed, liberator and liberated, opening ourselves to those who are opening to us. Drawing on Jewish mystic Martin Buber’s radical relation social philosophy, I wrote my own doctoral dissertation in the late 1970s on the mutuality which I believed is at the heart of God. My dissertation was later published as a book, “The Redemption of God: A Theology of Mutual Relation,” and though I’ve written a bit since, I could have let that early book be it, for me, as my best effort to say something to brothers and sisters who wished to hear what I believe about God.
I said then, and I say now, God is our power in mutual relation, the energy we generate when we truly love one another, the life-force released among us when we practice forgiveness of our enemies. God is the power that creates the universe around us and through us when, together, we struggle for justice for the poor and oppressed and those people and creatures of all species most disregarded by the structures of advanced global capitalism. That mighty relational Spirit for “making justice roll down like waters” is always a root of our joy! Those inspired relational words spoken eloquently in Raleigh week after week by Rev. William Barber and his associates on Moral Mondays were, and continue to be, a root of great joy for countless people in North Carolina and throughout the world, thanks to the social media that will not let great moments or great movements pass without notice!
But we must be clear with each other. Essential to our staying power, and to our joy, is our realization and acceptance of a hard fact of life. The fact is that, in this field hospital – life itself – we live constantly in tension that is potentially creative, but is also often exhausting, and can be debilitating. It is the tension between our own lives and needs as individuals – for healing, for time, space, privacy, rest, spiritual refreshment; and the claims and demands of community – church, family, work, social movements, political involvement, groups everywhere in need of healing and liberation. This then is where we find ourselves all the time – in a field hospital – but unable to be “on the job” 24/7 as healers of others’ personal wounds or as workers for social justice.
Sisters and brothers, each of us is a human creature, finite and limited in what we individually can bring to any family, community or movement. Each of us is one small being in an infinitely vast universe. However smart and talented we may be, however passionate and committed to justice making, however insightful and good humored you or I may be, each of us has a relatively brief life-span in a history that continues unfolding way beyond us. And this, for me, is a source of joy! But how so, you may well wonder!
For me, there is great joy in the release from imagining that I can do more than I really can do, given my own particular limits of time, energy, talent, knowledge, and interests! There is great joy in knowing deep in my soul that – because there are many past, and many future, and many with us today, I am “enough” – just as I am, “without one plea.” Neither you nor I can be or needs to be more or greater or busier. My life is enough, and so too is yours.
Each of us is “enough” because our lives are connected not only with one another’s – here in this church, for example, and in our families – we are also participants in communities of life, all of us, all the time, beyond our families and churches and those whom we know, and beyond human beings we are connected throughout the whole earth and cosmos. We are related in communities of earth creatures, with animals, plants, rocks, water, air, all of us “relatives” at the very root of who we are. Biologists, botanists, zoologists, physicists, sociologists, anthropologists, scientists know that our connectedness is our reality.
Theologians are often among the last to catch on, and this can be for good reason: Because our work is less empirical, we need to be careful about making claims that instantly can get grabbed up by those looking to judge others. Just as often, however, socially progressive and liberal theologians are timid in making spiritual and theological claims that publicly affirm our soulful relationality with others who are not “like us” – people of other religions, races/ethnicities, cultures, languages, traditions, and creatures that are not human. We progressives often lack boldness in making our faith claims known!
From a spiritual perspective – Christian or other – to affirm our radical relationality with the entire creation – human and other – if we’re serious and really mean it, is to let go of our arrogant assumptions that we are in charge of anything. We are participants, not rulers; Sister and brother sojourners, not lone rangers. We are creating the paths as we go. Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hahn practices a walking meditation somewhat in the spirit, I believe, of the popular labyrinth – except without any pattern to follow or any destination. The purpose of a walking meditation is to let our feet move slowly together on the earth and take in, physically and spiritually, the fact that we are walking together on common ground. That we walk together makes the ground sacred. That the ground is common to all creatures makes it sacred. As we become aware – through meditation – that we are together on sacred ground becomes a resource for great joy!
We rejoice in our hearts because we see both how tiny we are, as each of us walks on this vast sacred earth, and how precious and significant each of us is, because each of us is her/his particular being and each is enough. What can bring greater joy than to see ourselves, each of us, through the eyes of One who is our sacred power in relation, the wellspring of our connectedness; in Paul Tillich’s words, “our Ground of Being.” Seeing ourselves on common ground, we lift our arms in awe and gratitude!
I had an experience recently with a special friend who is not far from death. She was asking if I really believe that there is some place, “heaven,” or whatever, beyond death. The sort of relational moment that is, or should be, humbling for pastors and priests and hospice workers and others who sit with the dying. I said to my friend, “Yes, I believe there is something more, something glorious, something you and I will enter more fully when we leave this life.”
I did not go into my particular belief-system with my friend, because the moment between us was too relationally electric to clutter with too many words. Instead I held her hand and simply said, “Yes,” and as little as possible. Here’s what I did NOT say to my friend in that moment, but what I believe: I don’t know just where we “go,” or if we “go” anywhere, because I don’t really believe in a tiered universe in which “heaven” is above us physically, somewhere in the sky. In fact, I believe “heaven” is a metaphor for the ongoing and eternal close-up presence of God, in which we open fully at the end of our earth journey to the Love-Energy that is opening fully to us all the time.
But something happened in this moment between my friend and me. Something that I can’t explain, but it had everything to do with the radicality of our connectedness through time and space, beneath and above and beyond and among and within us: All at once, I had a strong sense of our being surrounded by a number of my most beloved friends and family who have died – and I can only tell you that those who have “jumped the twig” (to quote one of them, my Australian friend Sister Angela) were chanting or singing or ringing out to me and my dying friend: YES! YES! WE ARE HERE! WE ARE ALL TOGETHER! I was so filled with this “YES” that I said to my friend, “Oh YES! I not only believe something awaits you, and me, and all of us – I know it! When the moment comes and you are able to step through the end of your life here with us, something astonishingly wonderful will be there, and all will be well.” At the end of this meeting, my friend and I shared something I can best describe as a great joy that was also a deep peace without words.
I suggested that those who minister to the dying are, or should be, humbled through this experience. In closing this morning, I want to suggest that humility is probably the deepest spiritual root of joy, and that without it, we cannot find joy. By “humility,” I do not mean a sort of long-faced, self-effacing, having-no-self spiritual shenanigans that Jesus himself denounced as a superficial or artificial religiosity.
Humility is a relational quality rooted in a realization that we truly are walking together on common ground. We see that we are grounded together. Humility is steeped in a sense of our shared humanity, to our being moved by a radically relational God to live in mutuality with our sisters and brothers here on earth: sister and brother humans, sister and brother creatures. We’re all in this together, no one of us above the others. To live with humility is to be aware of this, and celebrate it.
There will always be popes and presidents, kings and CEOs, people off the charts in intelligence and creative talent – and the best among them, the ones with the staying power from generation to generation, those to whom we need pay any attention in the shaping of our spiritualities know, deep in their hearts, minds, and souls that they walk with us on common ground, and that no one of them or us has greater worth than any other.
Returning to our field hospital, keep in mind that we are both the healers and those in need of healing. Whatever our sickness, wounds, or hurt places, every one of us is now, and forever, in need of some healing. And every single one of us can be present in this field hospital as healers. Moreover, in this context that is our life together, we are both the liberators and those in need of liberation. Whether we need liberation from historic structures of injustice such as racism, sexism, classism, heterosexism, or whether our liberation takes forms of healing from forces such as addiction, or debilitating fear or shame, we walk on common ground that is parched by the thirst or drenched in the blood and tears of those who suffer. The Pope obviously means to underscore the world’s suffering as the common ground of our shared ministry as Christians. And I agree with him and have suggested this morning that we share in this suffering not only as healers and ministers but also as sister and brother sufferers who need one another’s help and support.
We embody humility when we realize deeply that our capacity to participate in the healing and liberation of our communities and the world itself is rooted in our own vulnerability, openness, to our own needs which link us to the rest of humanity. This is what makes us truly human, sister and brother earth creatures. Those involved in 12 Step work will recognize this spirituality of mutuality and humility and joy. The more clearly we see through God’s eyes the value and worth of each of us, and that each of us is “enough,” the better able we are to open our hearts and minds to the Wisdom of God, our Sophia, She who is with us, ever-opening to us. And in that moment, morning by morning and day by day, we find great joy!