September 11, 2011
Scripture: Ex 14:19-31
The Heart in a Heartless World,
Rev. Leanne Walt preaching
She didn’t know how to swim. But she loved the water. As soon as the shore was in sight, she would run down to the water ahead of her mother and little brother, ahead of me, her little four-year old arms flailing at her sides and she would put her feet in the water and squeal with delight. “I want my frog!” she would turn to us and say. So, her mother would reach in to the little red wagon that we pulled all the way to the beach and take out the blow-up turtle that she called a frog. To her, it was a frog.
I watched as her mother set it down on the skin of the water and there it floated, moving to and fro with the subtle tide of the ocean. Her mother lifted her small daughter onto the back of the beloved turtle/frog; one leg hanging down on either side of the plastic animal and as if trotting a pony around the ring at the county fair, her mother led her around the shallow water, her daughter on top of her turtle/frog gliding along its surface, squealing with delight. She didn’t know how to swim, but she loved the water.
The boy’s name was Santiago. Though he was probably older than the age that you or I would consider to be still a “boy,” the boy’s name was Santiago, as the story goes – the story of the Alchemist – have any of you read this story? Santiago was born in a small Andalusian village in Spain and ever since he was very young, his parents wanted him to be a priest. They spent all of their money sending him to seminary to study until he was 16 years old. But, like most children who are products of a predestined career path, Santiago decided he didn’t want to be a priest, he wanted to explore the world so he left seminary and his poor village and he became a shepherd. His parents gave him their blessing and even three ancient Spanish gold coins with which he could buy a flock of sheep. He set off with his sheep and traveled the countryside, seeing and experiencing the ways of the world. He was happy – but he began to wonder – as people who set out in faith for a foreign land often do – is this really my life’s purpose. He feared it was not.
It wasn’t long after that he started having these bizarre dreams, involving the pyramids in Egypt and a treasure, and he started meeting some strange people in his travels - gypsies and kings. An old man he meets toward the beginning of the story urges him to sell his sheep, to go to Egypt, to see the pyramids, and to look for his treasure – all in the quest of discovering his Personal Legend. Santiago didn’t know what a Personal Legend was. So the old man explains to him:
Everyone, when they are young, knows what their Personal Legend is. At that point in their lives, everything is clear and everything is possible. They are not afraid to dream, and to yearn for everything they would like to see happen to them in their lives. But, as time passes, a mysterious force begins to convince them that it will be impossible for them to realize their Personal Legend.
I won’t give away the story, because it’s one you really should read, but I will say the boy, Santiago, goes to Egypt in search of his Personal Legend. He steps out in faith for a foreign land; he sells his flock of sheep - the only thing he has to his name - and he misses each one of them dearly as he journeys on his quest. But he journeys still.
The book of Exodus stands as perhaps the most well known story of journey and quest, the one that resides at the very heart of our memory of faith. The Hebrew people could have stayed in Egypt. They could have remained in captivity. Moses could have denied God’s call to lead the people into the strange and foreign Promised Land. But, he didn’t. Instead Moses chose to step out in faith, to lead this outnumbered and outgunned group of former slaves against Pharaoh’s army to what he hoped was a better land, a place where his people could begin to write their own story. And when, with God at their back and Pharaoh’s army bearing down on them, the Israelite army came to an impassable barrier, the Red Sea, Moses stared fear in the eye and famously stretched out his hand over the sea - it parted, straight down the middle, turning into dry land allowing his people to pass clear over to the other side.
The country of India could have remained under British rule with no civil rights had not Mohandas Gandhi stepped out in faith to voice a new kind of protest which allowed his people to cross over to the other side of freedom. Our American sisters and brothers held in slavery so long ago could have remained so had not Dr. King stepped out in faith to respond to the cries of his people, extended his hand and made a way where there was none. South Africa would have remained a nation divided had not Nelson Mandela spoke a word of reconciliation when otherwise there was none to be heard. From Moses to Mandela, these are people who from their youth never lost sight of their call from God – their Personal Legend - so much so that they looked fear straight in the eye in order to live it. Journey and quest; fear and hope; freedom and reconciliation.
Pharaoh was never named in the story of the exodus, just as since September 11, 2001 our enemy has not been named as an individual – even not the one Osama bin Laden, for threats persists still – but, like Pharaoh, you have heard it said that our enemy is a force of evil and terror in the world.
Today we honor the men and women who looked fear in the eye against an unknown enemy – thousands whose names we will never know. And, we are asked to demonstrate that same bravery as we are propelled into the future. So that we remember 9/11 not with some kind of voyeuristic emotionalism but that we remember with respect and honor, to step out into faith as they have, to make a way when otherwise there would be none. Particularly as Christians in the coming days and weeks and years ahead to lead with words of love and gestures of peace.
This past Thursday I was stuck in afternoon school traffic on 37 here, heading home from the church. The crossing guard stopped me right in front of St. Francis when the school there was being let out – and for those of who have had this experience, you know that when this happens it’s as if South Braintree Square is being invaded by hundreds of little creatures with colorful backpacks. To my left, I could see a mass of children huddled outside the school and perhaps because it was just days before 9/11, I noticed that it was multicolored. There were Asian and Hispanic; black and white children gathered together waiting for their parents to retrieve them. Then, stopped there at the cross walk, two little boys walked in front of my car, one black and one white, holding hands and peacefully crossing over from one side of the street to the other. A common sight, thank God, in this country, but one that caused me pause this week especially.
We have the power, right here, each one of us at First Congregational Church in Braintree, Massachusetts on this day – whether you’re a member here or simply gracing the pews of this sanctuary with your presence on this day – you and I have the power to live as God has called us to live. To preserve the spirit of unity in diversity that exists in this country, to offer the kind of peace to the world that surpasses all understanding. If we step out in faith, we can meet ruminations of evil with love and violence with grace.
I heard it once preached that it takes great courage to be human. This was true in Moses’ day as it is in ours. After all, each one of us was once that child who did not know how to swim, but loved the water and trusted that our parent would lead us safely above its depths. At some point along the way we become the adults who endorse headlines on the 6 0’clock news warning, “Taking your kids to the park? You may want to think again; new studies have shown that metal playground slides could be harming your children.” Jesus asks us to be like the brave child rather than the fearful adult – when dealing in playground slides or threats of terror. Be the child who floated on water not knowing how to swim. Be the shepherd who sold his sheep in search of his call. Be the prophet who stared fear in the eye and parted the Red Sea waters.
In college I studied a bit of Karl Marx. If I’m idealistic now, then I was really idealistic then. If I ever needed a reminder to take the stars out of my eyes, it was at that time in my life. And we know that Marx famously said that “Religion is the opiate of the people.” He did say this and in fact he does mean that religion puts stars in peoples’ eyes and can mask social realities, but he also writes in that very same moment of his work, “That religion is the heart of a heartless world.” This is where Marx speaks to me. Religion is the heart of a heartless world.
We can be the heart in a heartless world; the hope in a hopeless world; the love in a world of hate; the faith in a world of fear. Of all lofty ideals and goals, hopes and dreams that we may have for our congregation this year – may this be the greatest of all – that we may be the heart in a heartless world. May we overcome our fear of the water enough to trust that God will carry us over the depths of the sea, that Moses’ hand will part the waters before us, with the breath of God at our back. And, we will cross over safely to the other side.
 Barbara Brown Taylor, The Preaching Life