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Sunday, December 14, 2008

Light of Heart

Here is the sermon for today.

Light of Heart
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee
Third Sunday of Advent
December 14th, 2008
Texts: Luke 1:26-38; 46-55
Acts 2:41-47
Acts 16:11-40

I have determined that it would be good for your soul if you heard some poems about feathers. Yes, feathers. Here are three poems from Emily Dickinson having to do with feathers.

I’ll Send the Feather from my Hat
I'll send the feather from my Hat!
Who knows -- but at the sight of that
My Sovereign will relent?
As trinket -- worn by faded Child --
Confronting eyes long -- comforted --
Blisters the Adamant!
A feather, says Emily Dickinson, blisters the adamant. The second poem is

A Feather from the Whipoorwill
A feather from the Whippoorwill
That everlasting -- sings!
Whose galleries -- are Sunrise --
Whose Opera -- the Springs --
Whose Emerald Nest the Ages spin
Of mellow -- murmuring thread --
Whose Beryl Egg, what Schoolboys hunt
In "Recess" -- Overhead!
I wonder if Emily Dickinson might be telling us that in a whippoorwill’s feather, we discover, if we have a heart for these things, the universe. Her third poem is often repeated, especially the first stanza,

Hope is the Thing with Feathers
Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul,
And sings the tune without the words,
And never stops at all,

And sweetest in the gale is heard;
And sore must be the storm
That could abash the little bird
That kept so many warm.

I've heard it in the chillest land,
And on the strangest sea;
Yet, never, in extremity,
It asked a crumb of me.
Dickinson shows us that a feather is hope that doesn’t demand but sings even in the chillest land.

There is a joyfulness about feathers. A feather comes from our magnificent winged friends who fly and who sing. They are lighter than air.

In Egyptian mythology, Anubis, was the god who was depicted as a jackal. Usually you see him with a human body and the head of a jackal. Anubis was the guardian of the dead. He guided the souls of the dead through the labyrinth of the underworld. His big moment was to weigh the hearts of the dead at the time of judgment. He would weigh the heart against the feather of Ma’at. Ma’at was the goddess of truth and harmony.

If the heart was heavy with the sins, deceptions, desires, bad deeds, and darkness of the world, it would be heavier than the feather. The heart would be devoured and the individual who possessed the heavy heart would either go back and do it again or cease to exist or kind of float about restlessly. I am not really sure what happened to the heavyhearted, but it wasn’t good.

But if the heart were as light as the feather or lighter than the feather, the individual would enter the “field of reeds” and spend eternity blissfully tending the heavenly crops.

It isn’t as important to worry about equating the weighing of the heart with a list of dos and don’ts. What is powerful is the metaphor itself. They could have used a number of images and of course many religions and mythologies have metaphors and images for judgment.

But the Egyptians win the prize as far as I am concerned with the metaphor of the feather.

You want your heart to be light as a feather. You want to be lighthearted.

Lightheartedness is misunderstood. Those we often consider to be lighthearted are sometimes dismissed as frivolous. They aren’t serious enough. Here are a couple of dictionary definitions of lighthearted.

From the American Heritage Dictionary: Lighthearted is “Not being burdened by trouble, worry, or care; happy and carefree.”

And from the Miriam-Webster Dictionary: It is “Free from care, anxiety, or seriousness: happy-go-lucky.”

That is about as good as we are going to get from a dictionary. Those definitions seem almost dismissive.

Being lighthearted or possessing lightheartedness is more than that, I think. A description I found that I liked is from a psychotherapist. Her name is Maria Grace. She is the author of a couple of self-help books. I never heard of her, but I found this brief article from her on the internet. She writes:
Lightheartedness is the ability to keep your sense of humor as you face life’s most difficult challenges. It is a spiritual quality associated with inner strength, faith, and the ability to face life’s adversities with a positive mental attitude. Finally, it’s a sign of courage and the ability to inspire others when, together, you are facing a difficulty that is overwhelming.

In order to be lighthearted, you must allow yourself to be spontaneous and willing to laugh at yourself. But laughter is like love: it can’t happen by force or prescription. But it can always flourish in a lighthearted environment.
I liked that description. This is what caught my attention. She said lightheartedness is a “spiritual quality associated with inner strength.” That isn’t quite the same thing as happy-go-lucky. Lightness of heart knows the dark night. It is not about ignoring, escaping, or denying suffering and adversity. Quite the opposite. The lighthearted are lighthearted because of adversity. If we didn’t laugh, we would cry.

Lightheartedness is Emily Dickinson’s hope, “the thing with feathers” whose song is “heard on the chillest land and in the strangest sea.”

This Sunday marks the completion of our quest to read the Bible cover to cover. The writings featured are the Gospel of Luke and the Acts of the Apostles. They are written by the same author. It might be helpful to read them as one work. The author of Luke-Acts shaped Christianity perhaps as much if not more than Paul’s letters. The church year is modeled on Luke’s chronology and the narrative of the church’s story comes from Acts.

It is the story as the author wanted people to know it at least. It is not history as we think of history, but perhaps more akin to historical fiction. The story has a function: it wants to tell good news. Joyful news. Perhaps even lighthearted news.

The texts I chose to highlight were the annunciation to Mary and her joyful song in response. She was given a duty. She was to give birth to the Divine promise. Her response to this duty, that would not be easy, was:
My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.
In the book of Acts, we find this early community so lighthearted that they shared their possessions. Here is the text, notice the joy:
Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people.
The lighthearted travel lightly. They don’t need to carry too much, like possessions.

One more story from Acts illustrates this lightheartedness. The story goes that Paul and his partner Silas were thrown in prison for disturbing the peace. They were upsetting the profit-making of the Empire. They were given a severe flogging, placed in the innermost cell, and their feet were fastened with stocks.

What do you do in that situation? Of course, there is only one thing to do. You break out into song. At midnight says the text they sang hymns. While they were doing that, there was a great earthquake and all the prison doors flew open and the fetters were released from every prisoner.

The point is not to take that story literally. The power of the story is the power of lightheartedness—“the song that is heard on the chillest land and in the strangest sea.” It is the lighthearted, the singers of hymns from the darkest of prison cells, who break our chains.

These stories in Luke and Acts were told and recorded and told again because they inspired lightheartedness that leads to joyful duty, generosity, and the breaking of our chains. Lightheartedness frees us from whatever imprisons us.

One of the gifts that spiritual communities can give to the world is lightheartedness. We are not so much called to enforce our morality or our theology on people. We are rather to lighten the hearts, to ease the burdens, to make glad the soul.

That of course does not mean we ignore the problems of the world. Humankind faces large, real challenges. We offer no good news when we ignore, deny, or misrepresent them. In the midst of them, we sing. Lightheartedness is
the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul,
And sings the tune without the words,
And never stops at all…,
I have one more story. It is a Zen story. It has to do with the stuff that we carry that makes our hearts heavy. Baggage, grudges, grievances, worries, old sins that cling to our souls like mold. I am probably saying too much. I should just get on with the story.

The story is that two monks were going to a neighboring monastery. They traveled together through the woods and they came to a river. It was spring and the river was high and fast. At the bank of the river was a woman, quite beautiful. The monks had rules. They had taken vows of chastity they took very seriously. So seriously, that they weren’t even supposed to touch a woman, not even with a fingertip.

But she needed to get across the river, and she was afraid. The older monk told her to climb on his back. They crossed the river. He set her down and on her way and the two monks walked along in silence.

Finally, after hours of walking the younger monk was obviously agitated. He blurted out: “You shouldn’t have carried that woman on your back. It is against our rules.”

The older monk laughed said: “I let her go after we crossed the river. Why are you still carrying her?”

Ah, the wise old monk was lighthearted. Light as feather all right.

My guess is that the young monk learned a helpful truth and learned to lighten his heart as well.

So may we all.

Amen.



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