SERMON: It’s a Wonderful World

MEDITATION

Spirit of Life and Love,
The world is so big and we are so small. Sometimes, standing at the edge of a canyon, our breath stopped short for a moment by the grandeur and beauty all around, we are suddenly aware of how beautiful it is that we are small. We realize that all of it—our big problems, our big accomplishments, our big ideas—are tiny in comparison to the enormity of life, the generosity of beauty, the extravagance of love. We are glad to bear witness, small as we are.

Spirit of Compassion and Hope,
The world is so big and we are so small. Sometimes, lying awake at night, tiredness swept away by worry and fear, we are made aware of our vulnerability and we feel so small. We face illnesses that we cannot cure alone, losses that we cannot bear alone, broken hearts that we cannot repair alone. And we hear, if we listen closely, the tender breathing of others who are also awake and afraid. And we understand that if we let go of our stubborn separateness, our proud independence, our stoicism, the loneliness of our fear can be transformed into a vast compassion.

We are here today, gathering together the bits of love we can muster, fragments of faith, tiny tendrils of hope. We gather our strength and offer what we can to those we know are struggling: those among us like Ted; Edie; Mildred; Alice; Eleanor, Elise and Anthony; and many others. And those who we do not know, but whose suffering we can only imagine: the trapped miners, the heroic rescuers, and their families and friends; the people suffering in Peru, Iraq, Darfur and everywhere touched by war and poverty; those facing another season of hurricanes and storms of uncertainty. We send them our gathered strength, the power of our combined compassion.

The world is so big and we are so small. Still, we know that we are not alone. We have each other. We have this blessed world, with its companions of heart and mind. May we remember these connections and give what we can to make our lives and the lives of all we touch better.

Amen. Ashé. And Blessed be.

READINGS
The Open Heart by Sharon Salzburg

To understand mindfulness, imagine yourself doing something very simple, something that doesn’t arouse a compelling interest–like, say, eating an apple. You probably eat your apple not paying attention to how it smells, how it tastes, or how it feels in your hand. Because of the ways we’re conditioned, we don’t usually notice the quality of our attention. Done this way, eating the apple is not a fulfilling experience.

So you blame the apple. You might think, if only I had a banana, I’d be happy. So you get a banana, but eat it the same way, and still there’s not a lot of fulfillment. And then you think, if only I had a mango–and go to great expense and some difficulty getting a mango. But it’s the same thing all over again. We don’t pay attention to what we have or what we’re doing. As a result, we seek more and more intensity of stimulation to try to rectify what seems unfulfilling.

Robert Frost wrote that life is an interminable chain of longing. The Buddha said that those who are heedless or mindless are as if dead already. Mindfulness is the quality of fullness of attention, immediacy, non-distraction. In that sense, it is the key to life.

What a Wonderful World by Robert Thiele as performed by Louis Armstrong

I see trees of green, red roses too
I see them bloom for me and you
And I think to myself, what a wonderful world…

I see skies of blue and clouds of white
The bright blessed day, the dark sacred night
And I think to myself, what a wonderful world

The colors of the rainbow, so pretty in the sky
Are also on the faces of people going by
I see friends shakin’ hands, sayin’ “How do you do?”
They’re really saying “I love you”

I hear babies cryin’, I watch them grow
They’ll learn much more than I’ll ever know
And I think to myself, what a wonderful world
Yes, I think to myself, what a wonderful world

SERMON
It seems so easy. When Sharon Salzburg describes mindfully eating an apple, it seems so simple. Here, in my hand is this apple. I see it’s shiny skin. I taste it: first a bit bitter and then the sweetness underneath. I notice the way its tartness makes my jaws tingle and it’s juiciness, which quenches my thirst. I find myself aware of the magnificence of an apple and deeply grateful. I am aware, attuned to my need and its fulfillment, mindful.

It’s funny, but it’s almost easier to recall eating an apple than to really notice the apple while I’m eating it. In the “real world”—the world where I am running around, trying to balance my obligations to work, family, self, and life—I rarely really notice the apple—or whatever else I am eating. I am too often grabbing food on the run—rushing from one thing to the next—never taking time to notice either my hunger nor what does or does not satisfy it. Rather than mindful, I am mindless.

The imaginary apple that Salzburg prompted in me seems more real to me than the small red delicious fruit I actually ate yesterday. I don’t remember that particular apple—was it crisp? mealy? Juicy? sweet?—I remember instead the idea of “apple”—an abstract notion of perfect “appleness” that I expect reality to live up to. But because I am constantly distracted, it’s likely that I’ll never truly notice the real apple in my mouth and so will always long for more and better “appleness.” I may blame the apple for my dissatisfaction and eventually I may blame all apples, deciding that apples are not as good as I remember them. I may move then to bananas or mangoes or other, more exotic fruit.

The sad thing is, there may have been absolutely nothing wrong with the apple. The lack was in the absence of my attention. I could have eaten a million apples and they would not have satisfied me, because I was not really present to be satisfied. I was too busy remembering the past or worrying about the future or thinking about something else entirely. The apple did not fill my hunger or quench my thirst because I did not notice myself, my needs, or the apple at all.

Then along comes Louis Armstrong. His voice is gravelly, deep, not necessarily “beautiful” by most standards. The song itself is so simple, so short and direct that it doesn’t seem like much. When he first heard it, the president of ABC Records so disliked it that he refused to release it in the U.S. until it had become a top hit in Europe. There is just something about that song—the way it focuses on the beauty of the simplest things. “And I think to myself, what a wonderful world.”

Recent research on the brain at Stanford University Medical School has turned up something interesting. Using magnetic resonance imaging, they’ve been studying the brains of people listening to classical, but obscure, music. The team used music as a way to study the brain’s attempt to make sense of the continual flow of information the real world generates, a process called event segmentation. What they found was that peak brain activity did not happen at the climax of the musical piece, or when a piece was particularly loud or complex. Peak brain activity occurred during the short period of silence between musical movements – when seemingly nothing was happening.

“In a concert setting, for example, different individuals listen to a piece of music with wandering attention, but at the transition point between movements, their attention is arrested,” said the paper’s senior author Vinod Menon, PhD, associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences and of neurosciences.

It seems to me that more than explaining how the human brain processes music, this study points to the importance of stopping. In the pause, the rest, the moments of silence, our brain has time to catch up, to notice, to “think to itself…” It has a chance to pay attention to the wonder of the moment.

Our culture has become better and better at giving us information and worse and worse at giving us the time we need to attend to anything deeper. We don’t have time to notice the apple we’ve eaten, the green leaves and roses. Instead we’ve become like George Jetson from the cartoon version of the future–chasing the dog, Astro, on an never-ending treadmill that was meant to make life easier, but instead has us running faster and faster just to keep from falling down and crashing.

This is, I believe, the reason that every religion has developed some method of intentional attention and stillness. Meditation, prayer, silence, chanting…all are practices that encourage human beings to slow down, to surrender to rhythms more attuned to our bodies—our breathing, our heartbeat—than the artificial and accelerated pace of culture.

Because of my own religious journey, I’ve often been uncomfortable with prayer. But recently, prayer has been redefined for me. Instead of an emphasis on petition—on laying out my requests or demands for someone “out there” to address—I’ve been exploring prayer as a form of intentional stillness, a time set aside to listen. I find that there is a “still, small voice” deep inside me, and that it is a part of me that needs time, needs the silence between the movements…and when I give it the space and time it needs, I often “think to myself…what a wonderful world.”

I found a lot of definitions of mindfulness online, but my favorite comes from MindfulPsychology.com:(adapted)

When we live in forgetfulness, we miss everything; we never actually live, but are always preparing to live. What’s more, our lack of calmness and clarity increases our difficulties and suffering. Mindfulness is an open, accepting, non-judgmental awareness. When we live mindfully, we slow down enough to process more deeply, and can find our way through difficult life problems. When we live mindfully, we are open to life, experiencing every moment deeply, in touch with life’s many wonders. Our awareness becomes spacious, open, and relaxed.

Maybe the magic of Louis Armstrong’s song is that it just notices. It notices the green leaves, the roses, the children, and my favorite line: the bright blessed day, the dark sacred night. It notices the beauty of the natural world, but also the beauty of the human, the people passing by. And by noticing, it hears a deeper message: “How do ya do?” becomes “I love you.” Just taking the time to notice seems to make the world a little more wonderful.

I’m reminded of the old Christian story of the Good Samaritan, attributed to Jesus. I’ve sometimes wondered if the priest and the Levite that passed by the man who had been beaten were not so much hard-hearted, but just full of the busy-ness of their own lives. Maybe they did not notice the man because their minds were on the meeting to which they were headed, or maybe they noticed, but felt they could not spare the time from more important matters. Or maybe their prejudice made them heartless and they passed by because they did not think of the victim as a man at all, but as something beneath them.

Ah, that leads to the last can of worms I need to open for this sermon. One can’t really preach a sermon called “It’s a Wonderful World” without addressing theodicy or the problem of evil. The world may be wonderful, but it’s also full of pain, despair, and suffering. There may be green leaves and red roses, but there are also wars and disasters, people trapped in coal mines, rescuers dying, families struggling, people in pain.

What is my answer? Yes. Yes, it’s true that the world—and life, really—can be painful, unfair, devastating. I don’t deny it. I can’t. I know there are people in this room who are using every ounce of their strength to hold on to hope in the face of enormous pain, fear, and anger. There are people in our world who can barely see life’s wonder because they have never had enough food, enough safety, enough love. I cannot deny it and I wouldn’t try.

In fact, I believe we need to be as mindful and aware of suffering as we are of wonder and joy. We need to open our hearts and minds to sorrow, our own and others, in order to develop compassion and to be moved to action. We need to notice our privilege when life is wonderful and use it to make a difference. And, when life is not wonderful, we need to really look at it, to let the voice of wisdom arise in us and help us see what we can—and cannot—do to make things better. It is not a coincidence that the practice of mindfulness is best articulated in Buddhism, the same religious tradition that tells us “all life is suffering.” Nor is it coincidence that the same tradition has as its goal the development and enlargement of compassion for all life. It is all true: the world is wonderful, we suffer, we must learn compassion.

Perhaps the greatest gift of mindfulness is to help us accept this complexity without judging ourselves so harshly. Sometimes, the wonder of life is revealed to us and we are able to discern the deep truths that seem to make the world more wonderful. Sometimes, we suffer the difficulties and pain of life, and even in this, there is the potential for goodness to be born. We can develop compassion for ourselves and witness it in others. We can learn of our own resilience, our boundaries, our strength and our humanness. We can learn to both give and ask for help when it is needed. We can learn to reach out to the person lying on the side of the road, beaten and left for dead. And we can reach out to the parts of ourselves that are bruised and in pain. And as we learn, as we notice what is true, as we attend to our real lives, there is the potential for something wonderful to happen.

When Dostoevsky wrote the Brothers Karamazov, he wrestled with exactly this complexity of life. He wrote of terrible things: patricide, ignorance, and pain. But on a deeper level, the story wrestles with faith and doubt, the troubling and the wonderful. What answer did he come to?

He wrote:

Love all God’s creation, the whole and every grain of sand in it. Love every leaf, every ray of God’s light. Love the animals, love the plants, love everything. If you love everything, you will perceive the divine mystery in things. Once you perceive it, you will begin to comprehend it better every day. And you will come at last to love the whole world with an all-embracing love.

May it be so with us. May we learn to be mindful, to be compassionate, to love the whole wonderful world.

Amen. Ashé. And Blessed Be.

CLOSING WORDS
By Rev. Marjorie Bowens-Wheatley

This is the work of the soul. Soul work is hard work, but it must be done if we are to be fully alive. One thing that makes it difficult is that it is transcendent-we must move beyond ourselves, to the place of empathy and compassion; to the place of hospitality-hospitality of the human spirit. This is what counters alienation, nihilism, and brokenness in the human family. Soul work. Compassion. Hospitality. It is the work of the church. It is our salvation. It is what ministry is-to save souls through hospitality of the human spirit. So may it be.

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4 thoughts on “SERMON: It’s a Wonderful World

  1. Lovely sermon – and I’m glad to hear that “the bright blessed day/and the dark sacred night” is someone else’s favorite line in the song. It always sends chills through my spine.

  2. Sean: I was looking at the cadence of the sermon by looking at the size of paragraphs. Perhaps you paused while talking about the brain activity?

    And now I’m going to have to read The Brothers Karamazov!

    Thanks for sharing.

  3. Hey Charlie!
    Hm. I’m not sure you can “get” cadence from my manuscripts. I tend to stick pretty close to standard “essay” format for publication. What I have in the pulpit is very different–sometimes lined out like poetry, sometimes with big white spaces.
    Also, I tend to be a very slooooow preacher. I leave lots of space/pauses and I speak very deliberately. So far, no one has complained and lots of people have said they appreciate the way my delivery allows time for things to soak in.
    So…come out and visit and come to church! 🙂
    Sean
    p.s. good luck preaching the words “Dostoevsky” and “Karamazov” in a sermon.

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