Via Creativa: What Now?
Keeping the Main Thing, the Main Thing

By: Candace Chellew-Hodge

Preached February 12, 2012 at Jubilee! Circle, Columbia, SC

Readings:
Isaiah 40:21-31: "they shall run and not be weary"
Mark 1:29-39: "Let us go on ..."
  Hear this sermon at the Jubilee! Circle Web site.

Our first song this morning comes from Indiana singer-songwriter Carrie Newcomer. "There is a Spirit" comes from her 2005 album Regulars and Refugees. Let's try it:

V: There is a spirit moving cross the water,
There is a spirit rolling 'cross this town
There is a voiced above the madness,
There is a spirit movin' now

Ch: Someday we'll run and we will not stumble,
Someday we'll fly and we won't look down
And all will see and most believe it, There is a spirit moving now

"You may write me down in history
With your bitter, twisted lies,
You may trod me in the very dirt
But still, like dust, I'll rise.
Does my sassiness upset you?
Why are you beset with gloom?
'Cause I walk like I've got oil wells
Pumping in my living room.

Just like moons and like suns
With the certainty of tides
Just like hopes springing high
Still I'll rise."

Poet Maya Angelou wrote those words in 1978. I think they are echoed in the poetry of who Bible scholars call "Second Isaiah:"

"Have you not known? Have you not heard? The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He does not faint or grow weary; his understanding is unsearchable. He gives power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless. Even youths will faint and be weary, and the young will fall exhausted; but those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint."

"Still, I'll rise."

Both of these poems are the voices of strength born in deep despair. Second Isaiah writes at the time when the Israelites were living in exile. The Babylonians have invaded and taken over their land and sent them away from their homes. The Israelites don't understand their fate. As God's chosen people they are not supposed to be exiled from their holy land -- but here they sit, dispirited and despondent. In this time of despair, Isaiah speaks a word of hope.

Angelou, too, writes to her audience in a time of challenge. Even though Jim Crow is gone by 1978, and slavery a distant memory for many African-Americans, still, the climate for people of color in society has not changed much. Racism is still rampant, both in subtle and overt forms. She writes a powerful poem of hope in a time of ongoing despair.

While these poems are similar in tone, they differ in one important area -- the source of strength cited. Angelou finds her strength in the human spirit, unbroken by the cruelty of slavery, unbent by the pervasive racism and sexism that assaults people of color and women every day. Anger and righteous indignation can take you far -- but only so far. Human strength, no matter how pure its motivation, has its limits. Eventually, we may become disillusioned because the world's injustices seem to persist, no matter how we try to change them.

But, the poet Second Isaiah, understands that true strength comes not from humans -- no matter how righteously motivated -- but from the Holy.

Have you not known? Have you not heard? The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. She does not faint or grow weary; Her understanding is unsearchable. He gives power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless.

Human power is amazing -- as we can see if we just look around our world at the amazing things human beings have done -- but that power is limited, and flawed. The Holy, however, is in the power business -- and whenever there is despair and desolation, She is the one who says, "I'll rise," and in that rising, we, too, are lifted up.

V: Be not afraid though the river rises,
Be not afraid when the cold winds howl
We are not called to live in terror, There is a spirit moving now

Ch: Someday we'll run and we will not stumble,
Someday we'll fly and we won't look down
And all will see and most believe it, There is a spirit moving now

"Did you want to see me broken?
Bowed head and lowered eyes?
Shoulders falling down like teardrops.
Weakened by my soulful cries.
Does my haughtiness offend you?
Don't you take it awful hard
'Cause I laugh like I've got gold mines
Diggin' in my own back yard.
You may shoot me with your words,
You may cut me with your eyes,
You may kill me with your hatefulness,
But still, like air, I'll rise."

When we seriously ask our Via Creativa question, "What now?" often the answers that come to us are answers of despair. We look at the ongoing injustices in the world, the ongoing oppression of people all over the world, the ongoing wars and the ones getting ready to start -- and often the answers to that question, "What now?" seem inadequate, or unimportant.

But, what Second Isaiah and Maya Angelou both teach us is this -- if we are to truly do good in this world, if we are truly going to make a difference, we've got to keep the main thing, the main thing.

"Have you not known? Have you not heard? Has it not been told you from the beginning? Have you not understood from the foundations of the earth? It is he who sits above the circle of the earth, and its inhabitants are like grasshoppers; who stretches out the heavens like a curtain, and spreads them like a tent to live in; who brings princes to naught, and makes the rulers of the earth as nothing."

When we keep the Holy at the center of our lives -- then we're keeping the main thing, the main thing. When we understand that human history has a long arc, but it bends toward justice, then we're keeping the main thing, the main thing. When we understand that our human strength, coupled with the unfathomable, mysterious, life-creating strength of the Holy is no match for any human-made problem on this earth, then we're keeping the main thing, the main thing.

When we keep the main thing, the main thing, Jubilants, we will run and not stumble, we will fly and not look down. The whole world will see it -- but only some of them will believe it. Only some of them will believe -- because too many are finally seduced by the despair -- and give up on themselves and the Holy. They forget to keep the main thing, the main thing.

"Have you not known? Have you not heard? The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He does not faint or grow weary; his understanding is unsearchable. He gives power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless."

Breathe deeply.

V: The walls are thick and the walls are sturdy
But walls still fall at a trumpet sound
Hand in hand we'll walk together, There is a spirit movin' now

Ch: Someday we'll run and we will not stumble,
Someday we'll fly and we won't look down
And all will see and most believe it, There is a spirit moving now
There is a spirit and it's moving now

A story is told of some African slaves picking cotton on St. John's Island, just off the coast of our state. A woman and her son were among those working the fields that day. After toiling under the hot sun for many hours, she is overcome and falls to the ground. Her son tries to wake her up quickly before the slave drivers see her and beat her.

An old man comes over to them. This is the man the Africans called Preacher and Prophet, but the slave drivers called Old Devil. The boy looks up at the old man and says, "Is it time? Is it time?"

The old man smiles and says, "Yes!" And he bends down and whispers into the woman's ear: "Cooleebah! Cooleebah!"

At that moment the woman gets up with such incredible dignity. She stands as a queen and looks down at her son, grasps his hand and begins to look toward heaven. All of a sudden they begin to fly. The slave drivers rush over and stand in confusion.

They do not know what to do! As they gape, the old man went around to all the other workers and said: "Cooleebah! Cooleebah!"

When they hear the word, they all begin to fly. Can you imagine? The dispossessed flying? Can you imagine the disempowered flying? Three fifths of a person flying? The diseased flying? The dislocated flying? They are all taking flight! And at that moment the slave drivers grab the old man and say, "Bring them back!"

And he says, "I can't."

"Why not?" they ask.

He said, "Because the word is already in them and since the word is already in them, it cannot be taken from them."

The old man had a word from West Africa, cooleebah, a word that means God. It had been placed into the heart of these displaced Africans and now they had dignity and they were flying.

The world does all it can to make us forget that we can fly -- to prevent us from keeping the main thing the main thing. It will oppress us, depress us, repress us, even repossess us, to keep us believing the lie that we can't do anything to change ourselves, or this world around us. Just accept it, the world says, accept that you are grounded -- that you will never fly. And the Holy responds, "Not so fast. I have given my children wings -- Holy wings that unfurl when they embody the Holy words of justice, peace and righteousness."

And still, I rise.

Breathe deeply.

Our second song comes from rock singer songwriter Melissa Lou Etheridge -- yep, that's her real name. Born in 1961 in Leavenworth, Kansas, this farm girl worked her way up to the top of the charts with such hits as "Come to My Window" and "Bring Me Some Water." Today's song comes from her 2007 album The Awakening. Etheridge wrote "Message to Myself" after winning her battle with breast cancer. Let's try it.

[Chorus] I'm sending out a message to myself,
So that when I hear it on the radio
I will know that I am fine,
I will know that I am loved.

[Verse] I warned myself of the blackness in my chest,
The razors in my heart would never rest
It's funny how you find just what you seek,
Love is what you get when love is what you speak

[Chorus] I'm sending out a message to myself,
So that when I hear it on the radio
I will know that I am fine,
I will know that I am loved.

In our Jesus story, we find our guy doing what he does best -- keeping the main thing, the main thing. The past couple of Sundays we've been reading from the first chapter in Mark, and Jesus is really standing in his power -- he has understood that the Holy is the center of his life and work and he's doing some amazing things. He's faced the temptation of the world to give up his ministry, he's taught at the temple with authority, and cast out demons. Now, he goes to the home of two of his disciples, Simon and Andrew. There, he heals Simon's mother-in-law of her fever -- and immediately she gets up and starts serving them.

Now, we can be offended by this passage thinking, well, a bunch of men come into the house and make this woman feel better and then they expect her to serve them some coffee! What a bunch of misogynists!

But, this story has a deeper meaning, because it's all about keeping the main thing, the main thing. Our world is just like that mother-in-law still today. Our world is still in bed with a debilitating fever. In our delirium, we strike out at each other -- we cause divisions with our illness, we foster hatred and resentment among each other. Our world is sick because it has forgotten to keep the main thing, the main thing.

In walks Jesus, this man who understands that when we embody the Holy in this world we can't help but keep the main thing, the main thing. It is this embodiment of the Holy that ultimately heals -- not just us, but the whole world. When we are touched by this healing power of the Holy embodied within us all -- then all we want to do when we get out of bed is serve others.

This is not a story of a woman serving men because that's her role in society. No! This is a story about how experiencing that healing touch of the Holy answers that "What now?" question with such power that we just can't help ourselves. We want to serve everyone we come into contact with. Like we said last week, we'll find ourselves asking everyone, "Do you want fries with that?"

What happened to Jesus in this story next is exactly what we can expect when we keep the main thing the main thing by embodying the Holy in our lives -- people come from miles around just to be in our presence, just to be served by us.

And you know what the really cool thing is about keeping the main thing, the main thing? Those who come to us will be healed. They will be healed of their sickness of selfishness, their sickness of despair, their sickness of loneliness, their sickness of alienation and fear. We have been given this power, Jubliants -- this power to heal not just our own sickness, but the sickness of the world around us.

We can only do that, though, when we keep the main thing, the main thing. We can only do that when we realize it is not human love, or human strength, or human healing that we bring to the world. Instead, we embody the Holy and bring into this world that unknowable, unfathomable, unlimited love, and strength and healing that only God can provide through us.

Cooleebah! This is the message cooleebah the word embodied that makes us fly. This is the message we must send to ourselves, and to the world that we are fine, that we are loved. That's keeping the main thing, the main thing.

Breathe deeply.

[Chorus] I'm sending out a message to myself,
So that when I hear it on the radio
I will know that I am fine,
I will know that I am loved.

V: I made every choice along the way,
Each day I spent in hell I chose to stay
It's funny what you fear can make you weak
Truth is what you get
when truth is what you speak

[Chorus] I'm sending out a message to myself,
So that when I hear it on the radio
I will know that I am fine,
I will know that I am loved.

Jesus' popularity didn't come without a price, however, and we must learn the same lesson that he learned. When people are coming to you, seeking the healing touch from a child of God who knows how to keep the main thing, the main thing -- we can get overwhelmed. Jesus did, and if it happened to Jesus, you can bet it will happen to us, only more often.

Jesus provides a model for us when we get overwhelmed.

"In the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed."

Getting away from it all, going to a deserted place to pray and meditate is not a selfish act, Jubilants. Withdrawing from the world for a time is not a defeat or a retreat. Instead, it is an act of faithfulness -- an act of recharging our batteries, of refilling our wells, so that we may continue to serve this world.

Jesus knew -- and we will learn -- that we cannot give what we don't have. So, if we first do not have peace within ourselves, we can't give peace to the world. If we don't have love within ourselves, we can't give love to the world. If we don't have a heart for justice within ourselves, we can't bring justice to the world. We can only give the world what we have and if all we have is anger and resentment and weariness, guess what we'll be giving to the world? To keep the main thing, the main thing, we have to choose to step out of our own hell, to overcome the fear that keeps us weak and remember that love is what you get when love is what you speak.

We have to resist letting our weariness tempt us to permanently withdraw from the world. As Jesus shows us, just as there is a time to get away, there is also a time to come back. When the disciples finally find him, he tells them, "Let us go on to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do."

"Let us go on ..." Jesus says. Let us go on and proclaim the message -- that message to ourselves and the whole world that we are fine -- that we are loved.

That message is only effective when it comes from a place of true, divine power. We can tell people we love them until we're blue in the face, but when we show them, when act on that divine power that flows through us, and we bring about miracles in this world that only the divine can create through us -- then the world will see -- and some will believe it.

There will always be those who disbelieve. There will always be those who won't believe in the miracles we can work when we keep the main thing, the main thing. Even if they see it with their own eyes, they will still not believe because they don't understand the main thing -- that without the Holy working in, through and around us, we can do nothing that will truly change the world.

We can't let ourselves be discouraged by those who won't believe the Holy's power, even if they experience it for themselves. Let us go on, Jubilants and spread the message that we are all fine, that we are all loved. Let us rise up from our sick beds and serve the world. Let us bear witness to the main thing -- cooleebah -- the unfathomable Holy that renews our strength and gives us wings to fly.

"Does my sexiness upset you?
Does it come as a surprise
That I dance like I've got diamonds
At the meeting of my thighs?
Out of the huts of history's shame
I rise
Up from a past that's rooted in pain
I rise
I'm a black ocean, leaping and wide,
Welling and swelling I bear in the tide.
Leaving behind nights of terror and fear
I rise
Into a daybreak that's wondrously clear
I rise
Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,
I am the dream and the hope of the slave.
I rise
I rise
I rise."

[Chorus] I'm sending out a message to myself,
So that when I hear it on the radio
I will know that I am fine,
I will know that I am loved.

Bridge: So if you are listening I am just passing through
You can take some for yourself 'cause it works that way too

Ch: Sha la la la la la la la la la
Sha la la la la la la la la la
I will know that I am fine,
I will know that I am loved.

[Chorus] I'm sending out a message to myself,
So that when I hear it on the radio
I will know that I am fine,
I will know that I am loved.

Oh, Yeah!

Candace Chellew-Hodge is a recovering Southern Baptist and founder/editor of Whosoever: An Online Magazine for GLBT Christians. Her first book, Bulletproof Faith: A Spiritual Survival Guide for Gay and Lesbian Christians, published by Jossey-Bass is now available at http://www.bulletproofbook.com. She currently serves as the pastor of Jubilee! Circle, a progressive, inclusive community in Columbia, South Carolina. She is also a spiritual director and is currently taking on new directees. She blogs regularly at Religion Dispatches. She can be reached by email at editor-at-whosoever.org or by using the suggestion box.

Copyright by the author All Rights Reserved

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