Scripture: Isaiah 55;
Week 1 of Sermon Series on Water: Approach
Mary and I were at the Indians game with friends on Wednesday night. Cleveland was up 8-2 late in the game, so we all decided the lead was safe and we left. As it turns out, the White Sox rallied. They made it 8-6 and had the bases loaded before center fielder Oscar Mercado made a spectacular catch to stifle the White Sox bid. Rally thwarted.
When I think of rallies, I generally think of sports. You’re behind and you make a stab at winning. In 2016, the Cavs rallied from being down three games to one and ended up beating the Warriors. When you rally, you come back from being down. I suspect the word got its start in battle: you rally the troops and make a concerted effort to reverse the tide. When you rally, you come from behind.
Here we are on what we at Federated call Rally Day. Some churches have a “Homecoming” in the fall, or a “Celebration Sunday.” We have a “Rally Day,” though. And I thought we might reflect this morning on the sense in which rallying might be at the heart of who we are.
If you’re alive, you can’t help but know the feeling of being down or behind. It sort of goes with the territory. You experience a setback at work—a valuable staff member leaves or the furnace unexpectedly explodes or the business climate changes just enough that you’re no longer profitable. We’re all-too-aware of setbacks in our common life, too. We look at the devastation in the Bahamas and the Carolinas and we can imagine being shattered. We’re all weary of division and incivility in our public life. And personally, too, we know that feeling of being behind. Maybe you wake up every day battered and discouraged by the searing loss of someone absolutely dear to you. Maybe you or someone you love is slowly fading into dementia. Maybe your child didn’t make the team or your parent continues to judge you harshly or your debts have become unmanageable. You and I know what it’s like to be down.
So what do we do? We come here today to rally. We come here to be part of a comeback. We may be down figuratively three games to one, but that’s not the end of the story. We may suffer any number of ailments and impediments and failures, but the deep truth of the matter is that that’s only a blip in the ocean of love and hope in which we swim.
“In which we swim.” For the next eight weeks, we are exploring and living into the richness of what it means to swim in the waters of the Holy One. The truth that we so often forget is that we are like fish in the ocean, with their proverbial lack of awareness of the water in which they live. If all you ever know is water, you may not ever really take it in. It’s just what is. So worship, at its best, is the reminder to you and me that we are surrounded and sustained by holy water, that we are swimming now and always in the waters of grace we call God. When we thirst—which we do—our work, the work of our souls, is to approach the God who embraces us always in waters of love.
And we can approach this God in countless ways. In the past twenty or thirty years, for example, the positive psychology movement has done a great deal to convey to us a psychological truth that is even more true spiritually: we will always do better and find greater satisfaction and fulfillment if we look at life not so much through the lens of ‘poor, poor, pitiful me’ and how awful things are, but rather through the lens of hope and expectation.
This is not always easy, of course, because awful things do happen and we do sorrow and grieve. But there’s a difference between sorrow and grief, on the one hand, and despair and resentment and bitterness on the other. We approach the healing waters of God when we remember that, even in our sorrow, there is also blessing.
Now it’s crucial to remember that these blessings are not about what we can earn or achieve. Shawn Achor, one of the leading voices in the positive psychology movement, says that most of us believe that if we just do the right things and earn our success, then we’ll be happy. But, as Achor says, you can never earn enough to be happy. If you get good grades, then you’ll just have higher expectations the next time; if you get into a good school, then you’ll be expected to outdo your classmates; if you meet your sales quota, then the quota will just be upped for the next quarter. If happiness, or fulfillment, depends on success, then you’ll never really be happy or fulfilled. Happiness will be elusive and conditional and temporary. Some kind of contentment that is!
So if we’re going to rally from whatever it is that gets us down, what about if we just decide now to be happy? And I know—we say: ‘But I can’t be happy. My marriage is a struggle, my work leaves me drained, my kids are suffering.’ And all of that may be true. And, at the same time, we can still be content and fulfilled. We can rally from the doldrums. Because the waters of God are always renewing and refreshing us.
Shawn Achor says there are some steps we can take to absorb these healing waters of God and move into a more peaceful and happy and fulfilled equanimity. He lists several ways to do that, ways that retrain the brain to approach life in a different way. If we want to experience something of those restorative, renewing waters, first, he says, every day we can list three things for which we’re grateful. When you sit at dinner, or as you get into bed, stop and recall what has filled you during the day. You saw a cardinal or a monarch butterfly; someone smiled or gave you a hug when you came into church this morning; you went to a wedding and were filled with joy and love; you took a long and peaceful walk in the Metroparks; your avocado toast or smoothie tasted particularly scrumptious today. I try to mention five things for which I’m grateful every day, five particular things, but three works, too. A habit of gratitude is a reminder that grace comes to each of us every day in very specific ways. It’s a way of approaching the outstretched hand of God that leads us to healing waters. And when we notice blessing, it rallies us. The life God gives us is good!
Achor invites us, as well, to journal every day about some gift that’s come to us that day. “Journaling about one positive experience you’ve had over the past twenty-four hours allows your brain to relive it.” I’m always struck by the need so many new mothers have to relive the experience of giving birth. They tell the story over and over again. And we can all do the same thing with our daily gifts: tell the story. It trains us to see those gifts more easily, so we see the holy waters in which we are swimming. Seeing that God gifts us in remarkable ways lets us rally.
Achor tells us, too, that exercise is vital. As he says, it “teaches your brain that your behavior matters.” Walking around the block, taking a bike ride, swimming a few laps: it can refresh us and rally us.
Achor also lifts up the gift of meditation, or what we might call prayer. Allowing our body and mind to settle every day, so we can be reminded of who and whose we are, and remember and celebrate our gifts, and slow our whirling brains to focus on the task at hand: all of this is a way of approaching the Holy One and calling to our attention the sustaining waters in which we are always swimming. Rally time!
The last thing Achor invites us to is to do random acts of kindness which, he says, are “conscious acts of kindness. [In our teaching, he says,] we get people, when they open up their inbox, to write one positive email, praising or thanking somebody in their support network.” What kindnesses could we add to that? Corner someone at the cookout today to tell them how much you appreciate them. Take a meal to someone who is struggling. Call someone you haven’t seen in a while. Write your fourth grade teacher to tell her how much she meant to you. Smile at and hug the people you know. “And by doing these activities,” says Achor, we train our “brain just like we train our bodies, and what we [find] is that we [can] reverse the formula for happiness and success and, in doing so, not only create ripples of positivity, but create a real revolution” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fLJsdqxnZb0). Gratitude and reliving blessings and exercise and prayer and acts of kindness are some fine waters in which to swim. What a holy rally!
Another teacher of positive psychology, Carol Dweck, puts it in a slightly different way. She talks about a school in Chicago in which students were required “to pass a certain number of courses to graduate, and if they didn’t pass a course, they got the grade ‘Not Yet’” (https://www.ted.com/talks/carol_dweck_the_power_of_believing_that_you_can_improve#t-20685). It’s not that standards are erased and anything goes—not at all. No, what’s conveyed is that the student doesn’t yet have it, but the trust and the assumption are that they will eventually: not yet, but some day, it will come. “It gives [the student],” as she says, “a path into the future.” They will rally! Even when life is not going well for us, that can be our stance, as well: Not Yet!
Baptism is the Christian sacrament that enacts the love of God for all of us. We, or our families, approach the water, and in that water, God approaches us. Those waters call us to come with our deep and parched thirsts, and to be soaked and quenched. Those waters remind us that our futures are not limited by our pasts or our fears. Those waters remind us that there is nothing we need to do to earn God’s affection and favor. And those waters call us to a way of life in which none are excluded, all are welcome, and grace abounds for everybody. The waters of God are waters of healing and love. And they hold us all afloat.
Many of you have collected water over the summer from a variety of places around the world. That water, that covers 71% of the earth’s surface, is a regular reminder of that fathomless grace in which we are all sustained, and with which we are invited to sustain each other. Many of us have spent time this summer at bodies of water, and we want to invite you, in a moment, to come forward by way of the side aisles and to pour water from wherever you got it into one of the common bowls here at the front of the sanctuary. If you forgot yours or didn’t have the chance to get any, come forward anyway—there are extra bottles of water in baskets. Take one and add it to the water of others. We will then purify the water and make liberal use of it during the coming year to remind ourselves of the magnificent grace in which we float.
Above all, as you come forward, know that you are approaching the Holy One who will never let you go. Come to the grace and promise of God. And even as you offer your water, come to be filled by the God who renews and restores us. For this is the gift of God’s heavenly rally. The blessing of that rally is that we together will discover that the waters of grace are boundless, and that in those waters, we shall find rest for our souls and strength for the journey of justice and love. Come. Approach. Rally. And be filled.