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Sunday, February 4, 2018 | 8:00 a.m.

Wings of Eagles; Feet of Clay

Lucy Forster-Smith
Senior Associate Pastor, Fourth Presbyterian Church

Psalm 147:1–11
Isaiah 40:21–31

As a tree torn from its soil, as a river separated from its source, the human soul wanes when detached from what is greater than itself. Without the holy, the good turns chaotic. . . . Prayer takes the mind out of the narrowness of self-interest and enables us to see the world in the mirror of the holy.

Abraham Joshua Heschel

The beginning of Isaiah 40 takes us immediately into the tragic loss of structures and institutions. It begins with the words, “Comfort, comfort my people. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term. . . . Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.”

The people have been dislocated from what is familiar for about 160 years, and when one has been in exile for so very long, it plunges them into a place of brutal honesty that arises from frustration. These people’s existence was shattered. They are so far from comfort and care that they have lost their steam. Theirs is a dislocation not only geographical, but it is also being deported from the structures of life: family, friends, ritual, temple, commerce, practice. They are also far from the familiarity of their relationship with Yahweh, their God. Their very faith is in question.

It might not have been exile, but it certainly was in the context of an unfamiliar culture that moved a seemingly friendly and easy dinner conversation to one where I found my own faith in question. It was a gorgeous evening in Costa Rica a few years back. My spouse, Tom, and I were guests of his cousin, whose Architectural Digest home sat up on a mountain in the cloud forest overlooking an expanse that extended miles. The sun was setting out across the verdant landscape, blazing in its glory as it sank orange, then bittersweet red, and then swallowed by the mountains to the west. That night they were having their closest friends in for dinner. The wine was poured, the hors d’oeuvres set out, the soup and salad and crunchy bread waiting.

Maybe the guests that night had tromped over familiar conversational territory so often together that having me in the mix gave them the opportunity to explore something they don’t often explore. That night it was religion. Maybe it was the fact that most of those at the table were far from their own homes, most of them had moved to Costa Rica looking for community, a setting where they could contribute to the well-being of the environment and culture. They were bound together by being people on the edge of that culture, of their own home culture, expats from the United States, living abroad, with no real cultural home. Some might call this a hyphenated cultural identity. Akin to the exiles in Isaiah, they seemed to be people in search of a homeland, and my hunch is that the homeland is not a geographical one but a vocational one, a calling. They were looking for something to define their lives. They were seekers.

That night the conversation was, in my experience, quite predictable, though I suspect those at the table thought it was unique. When they learned I was a chaplain at Harvard University and a Presbyterian one, the lone Presbyterian in the circle, who had long since left her Christian roots, started off: oh, the Christian faith doesn’t mean anything to me anymore. All eyes on my reaction, which was welcoming, open, listening. When I didn’t judge her response, the floodgates opened. Everyone at the table proclaimed their disdain for religion, for the dogma, for the institution, for anything that would smack of rules or telling them what to think. There was the injured Catholic; the spiritual but not religious ex-Protestant; the artist who couldn’t get enough of crosses—not that she attached personal religious significance to them, but she loved, as she explained, the symbolism of intersection of heaven and earth, the vertical and horizontal. But that night it was Teresa, who to that point sat quietly across the table from me. Our hosts had told me prior to the guests’ arrival that she had lost her husband a few months earlier. She and her husband had retired to Costa Rica in their late thirties, having made a pile of money in the Silicon Valley boom of the ’90s. He died, and she was living with a gaping hole punched by this loss that left her depleted, indeed in exile from all that delivered goodness, ease, joy. She was the one who had the real questions. And she didn’t hesitate to ask.

With something of an attitude she fired a question at me: “What do you do as a chaplain?” Subtext: Are you there to convert students? I admit that I was a bit put off by her edge, so I did what I often do in situations where I am on the spot: I respond rather nonchalantly. I said in my most low-keyed and also easy conversational way, “I have the privilege of supporting and caring for our students lives; encouraging them to express their religious or spiritual commitments; working with all of them.” Teresa fixed her eyes on me but with no giveaway response.

I went on, “As the university chaplain I am charged with the responsibility of tending the soul of the university, engaging the big questions of meaning and purpose that are so much at the core of education these days. I find that students and sometimes faculty and staff come to me to talk about what they believe about themselves and the world and often God, behind closed doors. I am frequently quite moved by what they say.” Everyone was nodding. I thought, “OK, now I am off the hot seat.” But Teresa looked at me squarely and said, “You, and how about yourself? “Come again?” “What about you? What do you believe?”

It is one of those moments when I could relate to what I suspect the exiles in Babylon were asked: Where is your God now, when the temple is gone? Where is your God now, when your children have long since followed other gods? Where is your God now, when the captivity has gone on much longer than anyone ever thought?” And I imagined that Teresa might have been asking, “Where was your God when my husband died and left me to raise four children on my own?” What do you believe, Chaplain?

I lifted a prayer, paused, and then stepped out to state what might have some currency in that circle.

“I don’t know. I honestly don’t know any more than you do whether there is a God. Where I begin is with Mystery. When I stand on the beach with billions of stars overhead I encounter mystery. When I look at my hand, the way it is shaped like my dad’s but the skin is like my grandmother’s, I experience mystery. Yes, you can read the world as the supreme accident of coincidences, but when I held my colleague’s day-old baby just before I came here, when I looked into her eyes drenched with the pools of birth, I was touched with mystery. It is haunting. It is magnificent. It defies explanation.”

Teresa held my eye and nodded ever so slightly. I went on.

“Mystery shows up in moments of deep connection and love. It also shows up in the pain of recognizing that this won’t last forever. My mortality is also in there. It is a mystery how we’ve managed to survive as species to date. And it is, I believe, a loving God that holds it all, holds us, and sweeps us off our feet, with joy and hope.

“And, of course, we have a choice: to dismiss it all—the coincidences of life as mere coincidence; the deep connections as hormones or plain old emotions; the mystery of your own life, where you came from/where you are going as age-old, unanswerable questions that defy and lead nowhere or somewhere.”

I stopped then. I realized I had started preaching and that is not what they bargained for! But as I sat looking around that room, I had the distinct feeling that all of us were exiled in some ways. Like Isaiah’s prophecy, we stand with a people who had waited a very long time for an answer to the question: Where is your God? Like the generations that lived out the exile between Isaiah chapter 39 and Isaiah chapter 40, that span of about 160 years left them in ruins. The social and theological core of a people overrun, the community scattered, the structures and assumptions that shaped the life of these people had not only come unraveled but was feared to be gone forever.

Do you ever feel like you are living at a time when everything you once counted on is being swept away, what is familiar gives way to uncertainty? When the dream of a life is lost, we are, like these exiles, driven deeply into the depths of our existence. When the stakes are very high, we, like Teresa, have the courage to ask our most pressing questions: Where are you, God? Have you forgotten us? Have you left us to duke it out on our own? How long will you hide your face from us? Chaplain, what do you believe?

And the people receive a surprising response—not from me, of course, but from the prophet Isaiah. Not dissimilar from God’s response to Job when the poor soul had lost everything and wanted to get an explanation from God. Though Isaiah 40 begins with comfort, by the time we get to verse 28 the tone changes to one of exasperation: “Have you not known, have you not heard? The Lord is an everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth.” This God doesn’t magically arrive with a quick cure. This God isn’t a genie in a bottle, but Yahweh is a God of miracles, of creation. The prophet essentially turns the question: Where is your faith? What is at the core of your belief? Do you mount up with wings like eagles or do you trip over feet of clay?

Almost as if the writer realizes that the exiles have lost their steam because the wait has been long, the pace gears down rather than up. The people are called to mount up with wings, but if that doesn’t work, then at least try to run, and well, if running isn’t in the cards, then walking and not fainting is the recipe. Sounds a lot like aging and the reality of bad knees to me! But maybe what the prophet is saying is that in reality we find ourselves more often stumbling over our clay feet than soaring like eagles.

The message of the Hebrew scriptures and the gospel of Jesus goes something like “The purpose of life is to give up your life, to anchor your hope in the disruptive, maverick reality that you are called to be filled with a power beyond your own. And that power emboldens you to see the world not only as a context for your own accomplishments, but also as a place where wisdom comes from something out of the context to see fully.”

The power of God disrupts the pace, comes into the weary exiled life to the people who have a dim view of things turning out for the best, and joins them with mounting eagles’ wings. This maverick God challenges what is expected. This is faith that is not understood by reading it or even volunteering it, but it comes only with holy abandon, losing one’s life to find it. Being infused with God-life is a very counter-cultural way. So do we teach abandonment? Do we teach, preach, hold, tend, awaken only to let go and be met? Indeed, I have seen it happen.

Many in our culture join that table of folks in Costa Rica. They are quite suspicious or even turned off by the church, and those who aren’t worry that their engagement will be misinterpreted. Yet many are longing for something that meets them: God, faith, an experience that holds before them the transcendent, the mysterious, something that piques their imagination, something so compelling they will give their very life to it. Sometimes it comes with the unflinching engagement with suffering and pain. At other times it comes in the encounter with mystery, whether of a cell or technology, or in an encounter with sheer and unrestricted grace.

I have to believe that a congregation peopled with spiritual mavericks, as I am coming to learn are here at Fourth Presbyterian Church, won’t rule that out in even the most stricken human heart, even the most seething spirit, even the disrespectful, despicable act. We are agents of formidable change, mounting up with wings like eagles, or walking wearily into the storm. Yes, right in the midst of these shocking, sorry, pernicious moments in our lives, the stunning, gracious, sweeping love arrives in its wake. The Maverick of heaven seems to arrive with unbridled goodness, holding the tears, fears, and hope itself as a gift to be carried from that gathering into the hard work of facing each other the next day, and the next, and the next . . . on eagles’ wings.

That night in Costa Rica we touched with a moment of holy heft, holding life around that table with the sheer uncertainty that presses in on so many of us. We did not finish the conversation. But as those at the table stepped out into the night, I knew that our stumbling feet of clay would take us across much uncertain terrain in our lives, but grasping the edge of eagles’ wings might give way to soaring on the wings the Maverick of heaven, whose grace is mystery and whose purpose is love. This is our promise. This is our deepest hope.

Thanks be to God.