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Thanksgiving Day | Thursday, November 22, 2018
Awakening to the Ah! of Things
Victoria G. Curtiss
Associate Pastor, Fourth Presbyterian Church
Kent M. Organ
Interim Pastor, Presbytery of Chicago
Luke 24:1–3, 13–31a
The original sermon with this title was preached by Ernest T. Campbell, a great preacher of the previous century, who notably served the First Presbyterian Church of Ann Arbor, Michigan (1962–68) and the Riverside Church of New York City (1968–76).
This rendering is offered in gratitude for his legacy and because its theme has recently touched our shared life.
Vicky: “Have you noticed how clean and glistening the cobble stones in the street are after the rain? And flowers? No word can describe them. One can only exclaim Ah! in admiration. You must learn to understand the Ah! of things.” These are the words of a Zen master: “You must learn to understand the Ah! of things.”
We live in an age more characterized by Blah than Ah! We spend unnumbered hours each year filling out ominously inquisitive forms. We search in our wallets or cell phones for the passwords by which various computer accounts know us. Plastic triumphs over wood. We have to deal with faceless institutions.
Kent: The romance disappeared from the telephone so long ago that not many remember when phone numbers began with a name—like Emerson or Crestview or Madison. Now, when the phone rings, it’s often a robocall. We are area codes, zip codes, credit and debit card numbers, bank account numbers.
Add to this all the stress placed on production in our society: the pressures to succeed, to achieve, to acquire and display. It all has a way of anesthetizing our capacity for wonder.
And here’s one thing more: the loss of the sense of God’s presence in religion. Church people have somehow become unable to talk without embarrassment about what we believe. We have forgotten how to pray. One of the best places to hide from God is in church.
We live in an age more conducive to Blah than Ah!
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Vicky: Tear that picture from the pad, and on a new sheet construct another scene. A young man is traveling alone on a long journey. He had left home under less than happy circumstances. He deceived his older brother and gained the family birthright falsely. He is running away.
Night falls. Jacob finds a stone to use as a pillow and prepares to sleep. As he sinks into unconsciousness, he discovers himself present at an unutterable sight. He envisions a staircase linking earth and heaven, and on it angels descending and ascending. Above it all was the aura of the Most High.
Then a voice spoke: “I am the Lord, the God of Abraham, your ancestor. . . . The land on which you lie I will give to you and to your offspring, . . . and all the families of the earth shall be blessed in you and [them].” The story of Jacob’s life is interrupted for him. Those little episodes of dirty tricks are gathered now into the larger purposes of God.
Jacob’s destiny is announced: “I will give you and your descendants this land.” A presence is promised to him: “Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go.” Not bad for one night’s sleep!
Then, awaking from his sleep, Jacob said, “Ah! Ah! Surely the Lord is in this place—and I did not know it.” He was afraid, and he exclaimed, “How awesome is this place. This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.”
Kent: Now, don’t automatically conclude, “That couldn’t happen to me,” because it is God’s nature to come, to speak, to illuminate. Sometimes in a flaming bush; sometimes in a still, small voice; sometimes in earthquake, wind and fire. Here in worship, there on an open road. This time before a painting or other work of art, next during a pensive moment as the sun sets over the ocean. Some of us know such occurrences.
A parishioner talks with me about what she calls experiences that “put things into perspective.” On her office wall, there is a NASA photograph of planet earth, which helps her daily to realize how tiny and insignificant her worries and cares really are.
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Vicky: Our good friends Ken Jones and Susanne Carter served as volunteers in South Africa with the Presbyterian Hunger Program. Their monthly newsletters would tell of the courage of destitute Zulu and Xhosa peoples, whose lot did not improve after apartheid. Each month, Ken and Susanne described the people they lived among: families in shanty towns with polluted water, undernourished children, and communities somehow coping despite desperately inadequate resources.
Kent: But then came a very different newsletter, one in which they described “the astonishing coexistence of pain and beauty in South Africa.” They told of
- hiking to the top of Table Mountain as thick fog moved in, knowing that in the city below folks were saying, “Oh look, the tablecloth is on the Table today.”
- driving the hills of the Transkei, watching the cattle wander between the spread-out homesteads painted in bright pink, turquoise, orange, and blue
- in Kruger Park, having to back up their car when a herd of elephants decided to cross right where they were stopped
- sitting under starry skies in the Karoo desert, humbled by the vastness of the universe
They added, “We have reported before, and we will write again, of the ongoing struggle against the causes of hunger and oppression and economic injustice in this part of the world. But this time we invite you to join us in gratitude:
“The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it.”
“Bless the Lord, O my soul, and do not forget all God’s benefits.”
Their Ah! experiences sustaining them in the face of so much that disheartens: “Surely the Lord is in this place,” they said, in effect, along with Jacob. “And [we] did not know it.” How oblivious we can be as we plow through life.
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Vicky: The late Joseph Campbell introduced us to an interesting expression years ago: “Follow your bliss.” Follow it. First, find out what it is that brings you bliss. And then stay on track with whatever it is that is joy’s messenger to you.
Marghanita Laski made a study of bliss, or ecstasy. She suggested that bliss can be triggered by many things: panoramas of nature; love that involves the whole person; childbirth, especially the first sight of one’s child; exercise and movement; spirituality, for instance, being in vespers in a grand cathedral; art. And she added also, lest we think too narrowly: “scientific knowledge, such as solving a difficult mathematical problem; poetic knowledge; creative works; recollection and introspection, such as calling up vivid images from the past; beauty, and encounters with the beautiful.”
Friends, we don’t have to create the Ah! occasions. They are already there. We simply need to learn to wonder as we wander and to recognize them when they happen.
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Kent: Last month, Vicky and I were at Northwestern Medical Center where I was admitted for an immunotherapy infusion to tackle my relapsed, aggressive large B-cell lymphoma. We had been preparing for this date for two-and-one-half months, as had a large medical and pharmacology team. About one-third of a cup of T-cells was “harvested” from me a month before by a blood-components-separating centrifuge. T-cells are the critical worker-bees of the immune system. And mine were immediately sent off to El Segundo, California, to be modified to become cancer-seeking guided missiles aimed at my particular disease.
Then came the time for the infusion of these re-engineered “CAR T-cells” into my body. That is when something additionally remarkable took place. Gathered in my hospital room, along with Vicky and me, were my two attending nurses, two representatives of the pharmacology company, plus the cells-transporting nurse who brought in on a cart the deep-frozen vat in which the CAR T-cells resided. The cells had been suspended, during their sojourn back from Southern California, in an environment maintained at 275 degrees below zero, Celsius. We were clued in that when the lid was cranked off, there would be an impressive cloud of vapor. There was. It was dramatic.
But Vicky and I began to sense something else. Something more, palpably in the room. We suddenly found ourselves on sacred ground.
Vicky: A hush had come over the room. We sensed that our companions, all of them seasoned health care workers, were in awe. They were preparing to witness an epiphany. In a quiet semicircle, they stood transfixed, as the heart of the Great Life Force was about to be miraculously unleashed.
The tiny, hard-as-a-rock bag of frozen CAR T-cells was lifted out of the cylindrical vat, out of the icy mists. And one of the nurses, improbably, began to speak directly and personally to the cells: “Welcome back. It’s been a long journey.”
Kent: Eventually, they were thawed, attached to my IV, and into me they flowed. One of our little cloud of witnesses recalled that when she was in nursing school, if she had heard that research would one day lead to harnessing and enhancing the immune system to fight and conquer cancer from within, it would have seemed little more than science fiction. They reiterated what we knew, which was that prior to immunotherapy, when an aggressive B-cell lymphoma comes back, as mine had, after several prior cancer treatments, the likelihood of living six more months was only 50-50. And now, there have been many durable cures. Whether mine will be one of them, we don’t know. But my PET scan result this week was wonderful.
After the emptied frozen vat had been wheeled out and our hazmat garbed companions had departed, one of my nurses came back to extend her hand and take mine. And she said to me, “Happy birthday. This is the first day of your new life.”
“Surely the Lord is in this place—and we did not know it.”
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Vicky: There are many stories in the scriptures of God’s being present even though it was not immediately recognized. Today we heard another of them, Luke’s remarkable account of two devastated, despondent disciples escaping Jerusalem. They had been among Jesus’ companions. They had placed all their hopes in him. They had seen the terrible power of those in control, who could destroy an innocent man, the best they knew. All they wanted now was to flee the city—to peace and quiet.
A stranger joins them on the road. He begins to explain everything. Not that they asked for a lesson, but what can you do while walking a distance? When someone falls into step with you, you keep on going, maybe listening with half an ear. The stranger’s explanations are from the Hebrew scriptures. “How foolish you are,” he says, “and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared! Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things?” Soon their hearts burn within them.
There are several turning points in the remarkable story of the journey to Emmaus. But the key turning point is their invitation for the stranger to stay with them. That is all they do. They offer hospitality, asking him to come eat with them. The risen Christ accepts. And . . . when at the table he breaks the bread, “their eyes are opened, and they recognized him.”
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Kent: On the fourth Thursday of November, we also experience the giving and accepting of hospitality. You know the scene. Grandfather once again brings out the electric carving knife and tackles the great bird, as he has done for us for decades. And Mom bustles about the kitchen, pulling it all together, fretting and sighing at times that this is going to be the last one she hosts, but underneath you know there is joy in it all for her. An uncle brings forth from the oven the creamed onions casserole he loves, because his mother always made it. Dad worked with the children that morning, helping them grind cranberries, apples, and the orange, adding sugar to taste—the kiddos’ tastes, that is—later supervising their placing their colorful creation onto the table. In the nick of time, bachelor Fred from down the block arrives with his standard two cans of creamed corn, which in the kitchen always get put into a pretty dish. This year there are the new neighbors, a Syrian refugee family, who don’t know much about turkey and dressing; but, oh, the sweet dessert treat they brought. And finally the folks who got invited just at the last minute when we discovered they had nowhere else to go.
Vicky: At last everything is ready. It’s time to begin. Everyone gathers. What happens first? At some Thanksgiving feasts there’s only a deep intake of breath that “we made it.” Or a moment of silent eye contact all around. The Quakers know how that silence can be spiritual. Some families move around the circle with each person sharing, in a word or phrase, something for which they are especially thankful. Some gatherings are so obviously different from prior years that this is a time to remember by name those who used to be at the table with us and now are present in spirit. At some tables, a heartfelt or traditional prayer will be spoken. And then we sit down, and the feast begins.
Kent: Friends, what is it that we have here? What is it, potentially? Palpably? Profoundly? Do we see it? Will we catch it? Does it dawn for us?
Both: Holy. Communion.
Vicky: “Surely, the Lord is in this place.”
Kent: Thanks be to God.
With deep gratitude to Dr. James P. Allison; Dr. Tasuku Honjo; Dr. Reem Karmali; Physician Assistant Corinne Williams; Presbyterian Board of Pensions Patient Advocate Annette Donald; Dr. Jonathan Mareira; Dr. Alain Mina; Prentice Hospital (NWMC)16th floor staff, including Hannah Gomez, Christy Hinz, Philip Johnson, Betsy Lucier, Sophie Oracz, and Daniel Salgado. Also to Robert Giller Curtiss, Marjorie Mathews Curtiss, and Lorena May Dunlap Organ.