Gathering Complexity

Sermon: Gathering Complexity

Texts: Isaiah 56:1-8; 1 Corinthians 12:12-19

Date: February 24, 2019

©Rev. Dee Eisenhauer, Eagle Harbor Congregational Church


          Let’s review the arc of this worship series on creativity, inspired by Troy Bronsik’s book Drawn In.  We have considered the first four “waves” of the divine creative process: Dreaming, Hovering, Risking, and Listening.  Today we’re on to Re-Integrating.  I had an easier time grasping the other words so far than I have had with this one, but I’ll take a whack at it. 

          As I understand it, this step in the creative process is what happens when the new creation is introduced to the world.  “Newly created things are defined by their relationship to the environment…[For example] a song functions best as a piece of art when it is performed or recorded for others to hear it…[The] music becomes once it vibrates the eardrum and soul of the listener.”[1]  The artistic creation is defined by its relationship to the other creations that preceded it. 

          As we look back over our faith story of divine creation, it appears that God’s intention was to bring more and more complexity into creation, more and more variety, putting more and more aspects of creation into relationship with one another.  Troy Bronsik artfully suggests the image of a “square dance of interconnectedness originating back to before time.”  I like the way he talks about the dream of a harmonious interconnected world: “As the creation story and the book of Genesis trace the influx of more and more variety, like a cell splitting into two, differentiation is intended to bring more nuance and variety, not to create enmity between those parts.  Even wolves and lambs are intended to lie down together, the poet Isaiah later teaches.  The infant is intended to play next to the asp’s den.” The New Testament author of Ephesians takes up the theme, saying that Jesus’ life, death and resurrection breaks down walls of hostility, making people one again.  Bronsik writes, “Every created thing is intended to be integrated with the other, as if the timeless square dance of God’s Trinitarian love were the script for everything that God is making…When God makes things, they have something to do with the other things around them.” [2]

          The growing complexity of creation and the growing complexity of human society seems to be part of the original design, but it seems we’re not as skilled as God in seeing the big picture, not as skilled at integrating what’s new to us into our world-views.  I was touched this week by a story told by a pastor on a social networking site with which I am connected.  She was talking about a Bible study group with some women in her church–pillars of the church, wonderful women, committed to Christ.  At one point the conversation turned to what was on TV these days, and several participants did a little verbal hand wringing over feeling barraged by Black History Month and homosexual couples and the “overly” feminist agenda. The (theologically progressive) pastor, fairly new to ministry, was a bit stunned and not sure how she should respond.  Another member of the group allowed as how all these groups were looking for “their turn in the spotlight.”   The pastor, still unsure how to proceed with these excellent women she is still getting to know, brought a Gerber baby into the conversation.  She mentioned that Gerber now has a Downs Syndrome baby as their beautiful image of infancy, and said something about how changes in what the media brings to us can be really good.  The pastor told the story and asked for counsel from more experienced pastors on the social media post, and she got lots of interesting feedback.

          I congratulated her on her good instincts because I think the Gerber baby was a brilliant and faithful conversational move.  The image of a baby who doesn’t neatly fit into the “norm”–that narrow image of perfection held in the imagination of many–gently but surely opens the hearts and minds of those who are defensive about their ideals of what’s right and proper and normal.  Here is an image of what’s new—we’re societally recognizing the infinite value and unique gifts of children who are different.  We are proving to ourselves that it’s possible to integrate a new image of beauty into our previously narrow definition.  I can’t help but think God must have been delighted at the Gerber Corporation’s decision. It fits with God’s intention to, as Isaiah puts it, “gather others to them [the people of God] besides those already gathered.” [Isaiah 56:8] Thus says the Lord God, who “gathers the outcasts of Israel.”

            I chose the text from Isaiah because it seemed like a model for expanding Israel’s understanding of those who qualify to visit God’s house, a “house of prayer for all peoples.”  Earlier law had excluded eunuchs (men who were by choice, or by brutal assault by slave owners, or by chance at birth unable to father children) from the inner sanctum of the temple.  Law had excluded foreigners from the inner sanctum as well.  Neither category of men fit the earlier understanding of who was good and perfect enough to get into God’s house.  But here the prophet is saying that if people do justice, keep the covenant and observe the Sabbath they will be welcome in God’s house of prayer for ALL peoples.  It was probably shocking for some of the people in Isaiah’s day to hear this prophetic word of integrating those who had been segregated from the community.  One can imagine folks at the Torah study group doing some collective verbal hand-wringing over this radical prophetic word of who’s acceptable in God’s house in the new age.  What’s next?  Women?!  Well, says the prophet, thus says Yahweh: “I will gather others besides those already gathered.”

          The familiar text from 1 Corinthians 12 is also an image of gathering the many into one, using the metaphor of the body.  “Just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ.  For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slave or free—and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.  Indeed, the body does not consist of one member but of many.” [1 Corinthians 12:12-14] My commentary points out that Christ is not represented here as the head of the body, a metaphor that is used in Colossians.  Rather, the body itself, with its many parts, its many members including everything from the brain to the breast to the nose hair, is Christ in its variety and entirety.  The many are gathered into the one body.  The text goes on to say that all the members of the body are indispensable, and that Christians ought to treat those who are usually considered less respectable with greater honor and respect.  The members that are already honored don’t need greater honors; honor the ones who seem less respected, who seem weaker, because you probably have no idea how very important they are to the whole.  The church in Corinth was divided and conflicted at the time, having a hard time integrating folks from different socioeconomic strata and different cultural and religious backgrounds together.  Paul had to remind them that their differences were to be embraced in the new community of new creation. 

          A commentary I was reading on Paul’s work this week emphasized how he was trying to teach folks about how the Christ community, in which dividing walls of every kind are broken down, was a radical break from old traditions and something entirely new in the world.  He’s right in one sense; Christianity was a new religion, and he was helping shape what it would become.  But in another sense he was wrong, because the impulse to gather together what has been scattered and celebrate the harmonious Oneness of the whole is an ancient dream, an ancient scheme of God’s.  The pattern is introduced in the growing variety in Creation, the diversity of plants and creatures that are all pronounced good in our first creation story as they take their places on earth.  There is a strong sense of harmony in the original vision; the creatures, though many, live (at least briefly) in peace in the fabled Garden.  We don’t take this as fact, but we may see in the story a pattern of unity in diversity.

          As we were talking about unity in diversity in Tuesday’s Bible study, particularly related to unity amidst diversity in the Body of Christ, Laeticia brought up the notion of fractals.   I don’t have a particularly scientific mind, so I suspect I only “get” the tip of the iceberg of what is known about fractals in nature—I know just enough to be awestruck.  Here’s a definition: “A fractal is a never-ending pattern. Fractals are infinitely complex patterns that are self-similar across different scales. They are created by repeating a simple process over and over in an ongoing feedback loop.”  There are a multitude of fractals in nature, like trees whose branches branch off into smaller branches which branch off into smaller branches.  Laeticia, if I understood her correctly, was saying that unity at the heart of many-ness is like a theological fractal we can observe in God’s creation.  The pattern is observable in our own bodies, made of many parts but one body.  It’s observable in the church, made of many members but one church.  A group of churches or denominations are one in Christ as well.  A group of religions differing from each other in practice and theology are one in their quest for meaning. We could keep going up to solar systems or go down to the cellular level and we would see the pattern of unity in diversity repeated.  It seems to be a pattern God designed at the beginning of time, a theological fractal.

          I think that’s a beautiful insight.  I’ve been wondering whether we might train ourselves to look for or long for the ways we are united when we are confronted and threatened by diversity and difference.  It’s especially difficult in a time of rapid social change to absorb difference as a potential blessing, when our first reaction is often confusion and fear (like the excellent women in my colleague’s Bible study).  Since Troy Bronsik used a song as an example of a creative work that only comes alive when it is heard and begins to impact the hearers, I got to thinking about a song recorded in 1967, mainly because NPR did a story on the song a couple of days ago.  The song, I was surprised to learn, is called “For What It’s Worth;” I thought it was titled “Something’s Happening Here.”  Let’s listen to it.  Pay attention, those of you of a certain age, to what memories or feelings it evokes.

          Many people think of this as an anti-war protest song written about the war in Vietnam.  The NPR story traces its actual origins to 1966 youth riots and police brutality on the Sunset Strip in L.A.   Business owners wanted the hordes of teenage “hippies and beatniks” coming to clubs and diners in that area off the streets because they were bad for the more upscale businesses there.  A curfew was established, ruling that anyone under 18 had to be home by 10.  That didn’t go over well with the youth, who protested and refused to clear out.  When Stephen Stills heard about police treating teens roughly while arresting them for violating the curfew, he wrote this song and Buffalo Springfield recorded it.  Little did they know that their work of art would give voice to a whole generation of restless youth in an era of raucous social change.  It’s a good song, an evocative song that was integrated into new things happening in our nation in unexpected ways.

          I like the song’s lyric, “Something’s happening here, what it is ain’t exactly clear.”  This simple line describes so much of life; we get stirred up but we don’t know how exactly how to understand or interpret what’s happening.  I like the advice of the song that follows: “Stop, children, what’s that sound, everybody look what’s going down.”  I’m going to commandeer it for my homiletical purposes.  What if, when we are stirred up and confused by what’s happening, we stopped—tried to step outside our natural inclinations to be defensive or offensive or just plain frightened.  And then what if we tried to look for the pattern God set in motion so long ago of unity and harmony in diversity?  Everybody look what’s going down—everybody look for what blessings are in diversity and difference, and everybody look for how we are united beneath our divisions, a pattern that goes down through creation even to the cellular level.  Is this kind of stopping and looking a practice we might develop as we mature in faith?

          Paranoia strikes deep, as the song says.  Ain’t that the truth?   “Paranoia strikes deep; into your life it will creep.  It starts when you’re always afraid…”  Pausing there before “the Man come and take you away,” let’s recognize again that fear is our constant demon, an opponent that must be faced down on a daily basis.  Paranoia strikes deep.  But you know what’s even deeper?  Unity, and God’s will for gathering up those who have been scattered and enmified and divided, gathering up the outcasts into the Beloved Community.  Jesus got right to the heart of the matter, the center of a deep theological fractal, when he said “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”

          Paranoia runs deep, too true, but you know what runs even deeper in God’s good creation?  Metanoia.  Metanoia is a Greek word that appears in Scripture describing a change of mind or heart, becoming a new creation.  I was moved by a hint of metanoia in the NPR story about the “something’s happening here” song.  The journalists interviewed a man who was on the verge of going to Vietnam as a soldier when the song was released.  He heard it first, stateside, as a cool-sounding song.  He heard it in a different way as it became popular among soldiers and anti-war protesters alike while he was in Vietnam, discovering the war wasn’t what had been sold to him by recruiters and politicians and civics teachers back home.  And he heard it again in a new way as he reflected on the lyric “There’s a man with a gun over there” while in country.  He says, “I realized, hearing that song again — ‘Oh, wait a minute. I was the guy with the gun over there. I’m the bad guy.’” [3]   His politics were changing, and his heart was changing. We wouldn’t hold a young man morally responsible for his participation in what turned out to be a disastrous war.  But I really appreciate his perspective that allowed him to see himself as compromised, a little less than innocent.  Such a confession opens the way for paranoia to be replaced by metanoia. The brief article doesn’t say whether his war experience changed the way he viewed the people he had been schooled to see as the enemy; that is certainly a part of many a war story as combatants glimpse the shared humanity of those who they have been trained to kill.  Even in the horrifying landscape of war, the deep pattern of God’s will for humanity to live as one can be perceived by those who are open to it.

          Beloved, paranoia strikes deep in our divided world.  But metanoia runs deeper.  Any occasion that fear and hatred of the Other grabs hold of us can be an opportunity to stop and look, stop and listen for the Spirit’s call to integrate difference into the cosmic pattern of marvelous diversity.  The bad news is that sometimes we perceive that we are the “bad guy,” the one who has been commandeered by fear and hatred.  The good news is that we can be changed. We can be healed of our own hardness of heart, and become agents of healing, gathering up those who have not yet been gathered into God’s Beloved Community, a house of prayer for ALL peoples.  


[1]  Brosnik, Troy Drawn In: A Creative Process for Artists, Activists, and Jesus Followers Brewster, MA: Paraclete Press, 2013, p. 34

[2] Ibid. p. 36

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