message by Tom Terrell
This morning rather than finding Biblical scripture in your bulletins you’ll see a poem and some lyrics to a song, both of them written by Nobel Prize winners in literature.
William Butler Yeats wrote his poem, The Second Coming, around the time of the armistice that ended World War I, when the world had been engulfed in flames caused by global alliances designed to discourage, not cause war. A war with a destructive force never known or imagined.
The poem begins with the image of a falcon that has left its master’s glove, flying higher and farther until there is no control of its flight. He referenced change in the world fueled by people full of emotional anger.
The Second Coming
By William Butler Yeats
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?
The second set of lyrics was written by Bob Dylan, who many of you know was born Robert Zimmerman, a Jew, who never went to college. But as he moved to New York and began his musical career he was a voracious reader. Among other things, he has lived a life of fascination with Jesus, with his teachings, with his symbolism. He even has albums called his “Christian albums.”
In his song, Shelter from the Storm, he talks of Jesus’s suffering on the cross, but instead of saying, “help me,” he captured Jesus’s message, “I am here to help you.”
From Shelter from the Storm
By Bob Dylan
In a little hilltop village, they gambled for my clothes,
I bargained for salvation, and they gave me a lethal dose,
I offered up my innocence and got repaid with scorn,
“Come in,” [he] said,
“I’ll give you shelter from the storm.”
I open with these two poems because, in a moment of confession, I must tell you that there are days when I just feel a little scared. And those of you who know me know that fear is not my default setting. There are days of late when I, like many of you, have become anxious.
I watch the unfolding of world events and feel as though I’m watching the falcon fly higher and farther, beyond the cry of the falconer. I sense there is a storm coming. And I’m looking for shelter.
It’s not the same type of anxiety we get when there has been some sort of social change we’re not used to, like when music styles change, or when governmental leadership changes hands, or there crazy trend that comes out of nowhere, like being forced to choose and announce your pronouns.
No. I have a different kind of anxiety. A different kind of uneasiness. A sense that we’re losing control of the world we live in. Losing the ability to shape events as they begin.
A simmering fear that the center that always held us together is slipping, that the best among us lack moral conviction, and there is, in Yeats’ words, some sort of beast in our world that is slouching towards Bethlehem, waiting to be born.
Among other things, I have been losing the faith I had for decades that Americans are, in some vague way, innately good people.
We’ve been slipping in that direction for a while. The world many of us grew up in was based on standards of public morality and civil decorum that seem no longer to exist. Our children and grandchildren have grown unaccustomed to images in films and on TV that would in former days be unspeakable.
We used to be able to recognize and accept truths and facts.
How many of us grew up with Walter Cronkite on the CBS evening news, a man whose factual and moral integrity were never questioned. No one said you can’t trust Walter Cronkite because he’s liberal or conservative.
The same Walter Cronkite who cried on air when he was forced to announce that John F. Kennedy had been pronounced dead. The man whose tears helped the entire nation interpret the power of the moment. The same man who narrated what it meant to us, as Americans, when for the first time in human history we finally walked on the moon.
My children have never known a national voice that we can compare to Walter Cronkite. Today, too much of what passes for news is based in malice and political mischief and placed on unregulated social media platforms answerable to no one.
Social media platforms controlled by mega-billionaires whose abilities to manipulate our economy and our government’s decisions play out before our eyes.
All the while our so-called “responsible” media are forced to choose one side of the political spectrum or the other simply to maintain viewers and compete for market share.
The result is a civitas – a political public square – where public discourse is no longer possible because it has become too easy to demonize people who literally live next door to us.
We walk across our public squares and see that worthy political opponents have now become our mortal enemies fighting apocalyptic battles every November.
And our own divisions inside America make us vulnerable to wolves scratching at our country’s door.
China is now the second largest economy in the world, and it is controlled entirely by a communist dictator whose daily decisions often have more impact on our economy and our jobs and our market prices than the people we elect to office.
In Europe, an increasingly irrational Russian dictator is threatening Europe with nuclear retaliation because other nations came to the aid of the country of Ukraine whose only sin is that they don’t want to be controlled by a foreign dictatorship.
And it’s not just that the War in Ukraine has seriously affected the price of oil on Main Street, the price of bread at Food Lion, and the price of basic necessities that we rely on here in our small piece of the world.
It’s also that these challenges come at a time when we have just emerged from the coma triggered by a world pandemic that killed over 6.5 million people. And rather than such a health threat uniting us, we let it divide us.
And then there is climate change.
For decades, oil and gas companies paid millions and millions of dollars to lobbyists and contributed to political campaigns to persuade Congress to ignore warning signs of dangers to our world’s ecosystems.
In recent years increasing numbers of those same lobbyists and oil executives are starting to emerge from their board rooms to say they are sorry. That they didn’t know what they were doing. Or that they did know but were just doing their jobs. In the words of the prophet Hosea, they sowed to the wind, leaving us to reap the whirlwind.
In the American west and southwest we’re experiencing what is called a mega-drought. Entire rivers and in some places, river systems, have dried up. Destructive heat waves have pushed farmers into bankruptcy and driven up food prices. States and communities and corporations are battling over water allocations.
Satellite images are showing a “browning of the land” leading to wildfires and baking of the land so hard that when rains finally do come there is no ability for the soil to absorb water, causing flooding at scales we’ve never seen.
Lake Mead, the country’s largest reservoir created by the Hoover Dam on the Colorado River has not been at full capacity for years. Its loss of water and the dam’s potential inability to generate electricity to the City of Las Vegas were recently covered locally by our Brentwood Street neighbor, Fox News. One reason it is drying up is because of the loss of snowcaps on nearby mountains.
Which is not an American phenomenon. It’s happening worldwide. When Bolivian Quaker Emma Condori visited us in August, she told how the reservoir serving Bolivia’s capital city, La Paz, went dry because the previous year no snow formed on the nearby mountains and there was no way for the reservoir that served over a million people to be replenished.
I learned just last week that there is something called the wet bulb phenomenon. It is new. Wet bulb temperature is when humidity – the amount of moisture in the air – and heat combine at a point where evaporation due to sweat no longer works to cool a person.
Most of these wet bulb conditions are concentrated in South Asia and the coastal Middle East. And there are places, like heavily-populated parts of India, where the phenomenon has come very dangerously close to occurring, and as the world’s heating increases, substantially crossing that line could cause millions of people simultaneously to die or fall into heat stroke.
Tornadoes and hurricanes are occurring with frequencies and ferocities each year that previous generations never experienced. Katrina. Andrew. Floyd. Sandra. Harvey.
When hurricane Matthew came into North Carolina six years ago some inland rivers crested days later at over 20 feet above normal.
I had to be in court in Carteret County a couple of days after the hurricane left, and as I came home, I was the very last car to be allowed to cross the Neuse River on Highway 70 because flood waters were up to the bottom of the bridge. I watched in my rearview mirror as they stopped traffic and placed barricades across the road. When I reached the other side highway patrol cars had already blocked traffic traveling east.
In a larger sense, what does this mean? At least, what does all of this mean in theological terms? Where is our rock? Where is our anchor. Where is our shelter in the coming storm? And what is our duty, as Christian, as the world changes so rapidly before our eyes?
Is there a God who can save us – and if you’re thinking of the Biblical flood and ark built by Noah, you may wonder if there is a God who is willing to save us.
Some of our answers come in the form of comforting words from Psalms.
God is our refuge and strength,
an ever-present help in trouble.
Therefore, we will not fear, though the earth give way
and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea,
though its waters roar and foam
and the mountains quake with their surging.
Or from Psalm 23, “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will feel no evil, for thou art with me.”
But I find that our guide to getting through what lies ahead lies in the New Testament.
As Paul said in First Corinthians, “And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.”
When I look into a very cloudy crystal ball and see increasing floods, and fires, and nations fighting nations, I still have hope. I choose to have hope. Or better stated, I choose … to choose to have hope.
And when I see the faithless fighting among the faithless, I choose to stand by the wayside and to have faith – the “faith of my fathers” – even though there are days, I must confess, when I’m really not sure what that faith is.
As we move through the coming decades, our standards of living might have to change. We might have to learn to share resources that historically we have seen as ours.
But the only way that our grandchildren and great-grandchildren will see the end of this century and experience life better than we have is for us to have love.
Love means finding ways to trust each other. It means finding ways to work with each other. It means finding ways to care for one another. It means not constantly looking for the enemies among us.
Because if you seek, you will find.
As members of a congregation that has worshipped here for 250 years, a congregation that treated the wounded of both sides during the Revolution, a congregation that took the side of abolitionists fighting slavery, and a congregation whose members were prominent voices of peace in times of 20th century war, we have a duty to be voices of Christian love in decades to come.
It means rather than just seeking shelter for ourselves we should be the ones building shelters, real or hypothetical, for others. That is the type of love Jesus taught.
It is our willingness to love that supports my faith. It is our ability to love that gives me hope.
May faith and hope and love live deeply within all of us.