Beth A. Faeth, July 9, 2017
Texts: Isaiah 58:6–11;
“The Clearing,” by Tomas Tranströmer
Two weeks ago, my daughter Ellie and I traveled to Boston on a college expedition. The fact that in one short year I will be sending my girl off to school is baffling to me. I really cannot be old enough to have a child in college, can I? It was a wonderful trip and obvious that in just a few short days Ellie and the metropolis of Boston fell in love. She states that she feels she left a piece of her heart there, and all I can do is sigh. I have lost her to the seductive powers of a great city with much to offer, especially in the areas of education. The highlight of the trip for me, however, was traveling outside of the city to visit friends in northwest Connecticut. Here it was my turn to fall in love—with the rolling hillsides, the lush greenery, the covered bridges, the rushing rivers and streams, the quintessential New England churches and other architecture. And while my friends were wonderful hosts and tour guides, it became obvious to me after several conversations that their heart had been captured by somewhere else—a recent trip to Iceland. One evening we poured through photographs of their journey and they excitedly narrated their travels. Pictures of steaming lava fields that they were able to walk upon and explore; the ruggedness of the landscape coupled with the beautiful green of expansive horizon. One photo had my friend waving his arms with animation—it was a gorgeous waterfall over a mountainous cliff, simply stunning—but that is not what he wanted me to notice. “Look at this,” he exclaimed as he enlarged the picture so I could see: “There are people right on the edge of the precipice.” Sure enough, the top of the cliff was dotted with human beings, a sight both thrilling and terrifying (my palms actually began to sweat) as they were so close to the edge. Full access, he exclaimed. There are no guardrails or barricades to keep people from getting too close. From lava fields to waterfalls, there are no boundaries. You are “a part of” rather than “apart from.” That’s what I loved the most, my friend confessed. Nothing holding us back, no posted signs of warning or caution of trespassing. Full access.
I have thought about this conversation a lot since my return home, especially in light of our celebration of the Scandinavian culture today—particularly as it pertains to the Scandinavian love for summer days. Whether Iceland is authentically Scandinavian remains a point of contention amongst Nordic experts. It seems everyone can agree that Denmark, Sweden and Norway are what we know as Scandinavian, but Iceland and Finland are “generally included.” This could become the message in itself if we were to enter into a debate and explore the theological consequences of inclusion versus exclusion, so for the sake of this sermon and this particular illustration, let’s just consider Iceland “in.”
Midsummer (or Midsommar), an observation of the longest day of the year, is celebrated in each of the Scandinavian countries. Traditionally, Midsummer was celebrated on June 24, the feast day of St. John the Baptist, but the holiday has its roots in a pre-Christian solstice festival. Rather than recreate the wheel and interfere with public enthusiasm, the early Church found it useful to co-opt the pagan festivals by associating them with Christian celebrations. By establishing December 25, conveniently close to the winter solstice, as the date when Jesus was born, the Church was able to absorb the pagan midwinter festival of Yule into the Christian celebration of Christmas. Biblical sources suggest that St. John the Baptist was born six months before Jesus, meaning for the church that his birthday could be equally conveniently associated with pagan summer solstice festivals.
The arrival of summer in Scandinavia means flowers are finally in bloom and trees are full of leaves—signs of nature’s rejuvenation. During the Midsummer festivals, which last for days, people decorate their homes with birch leaves, which are believed to hold special healing powers, and pick flowers for garlands and wreaths, which are symbols of fertility. Midsummer was considered to be a time of magic, and anything to do with nature was thought to have a special power. Gathering flowers to weave into wreaths and crowns was a way to harness nature’s power to ensure good health throughout the year. Girls still pick seven different kinds of flowers to place under their pillows so that, according to local legend, they will then dream of their future husbands. While celebrations vary between Scandinavian countries (in Iceland, the dew is believed to have special healing powers on Midsummer Night, and therefore it is considered healthy to roll around naked in the grass in the midnight sun . . . perhaps another reason to let Iceland “in”?), the overall themes of the celebration are consistent—basking in the glory of nature’s gifts, the building of community through group celebrations and a welcoming of the light after a long season of darkness. It is the sun that allows access to the beauties of the earth; this access invites one to reap the pleasures of gathering in community—building relationship, creating welcome, breaking down barriers, eliminating road blocks.
Isn’t that what we all seek? Access? The ability to enter in, the liberty and freedom to attain? Access has become a key word where barriers already are in place. Many of us long for access to decent and affordable healthcare, access to fair wages, access to social systems that seem intent on keeping people out and holding people back. This week we celebrated a holiday meant to lift up our freedoms, and yet so many people in our community and beyond feel left out, oppressed, discarded, invisible, restrained. Figuratively and literally, there are roadblocks and barriers everywhere—keeping the poor in poverty, the lonely isolated, the differently abled outcast, the mentally ill ostracized. All of us are seeking access to that risky cliff’s edge, or an invitation to the summer light of a Nordic celebration . . . to not be held back . . . to be welcome . . . included . . . ”a part of” instead of “apart from.” Our work right now is about gaining access.
The reading from Isaiah this morning nears the end of that long scriptural book. The historical backdrop for Isaiah 58 is likely the period of fasting that followed the exile. Zechariah 7:3–5 indicates that Israel fasted on the fifth and seventh months for 70 years following the destruction of Jerusalem. For 70 years, Israel would fast at least twice a year commemorating the fact that they had lost their home and their king. They fasted and prayed seeking a response, an answer to their troubles. The people were desperately seeking justice from God, and they believed that fasting was the correct course to induce divine action. In our passage today, God responds by demanding Israel to stop the self-righteous fast. A fast is too insular, too inwardly focused. God calls for Israel to focus on the community, to bring all people into wholeness, to serve the needs of others, not their individual selves. The people, individually and corporately, cannot have a full relationship with God without a just relationship with each other. In our reading this morning, the prophet Isaiah beckons the people to reframe their understanding of piety. Fasting is not the way to loosen the bonds of injustice, or to share what we have with those who have not, or to bring the homeless into one’s house, or to give clothing and shelter to the naked, or to reconcile with one’s family, or to help the afflicted. Fasting is passive and, in a way, self-serving. God issues a call to action.
This is a call to access. Israel is to be an agent of liberation, generosity and compassion for the poor and oppressed. When our work is about dismantling the barriers to food and shelter, to community and inclusion, to hope and purpose, then, the prophet says, then the light will break forth in the darkness and parched souls will be refreshed and the people will be like a watered garden. Yes, that sounds like a living picture of Midsommar: Access to beauty; access to grace; access to the light. When we work for access, there will be, as Professor Amy Oden writes, “broad social consequences, actions that will restructure relationships. God’s desire is not for singular, pious acts, but for a whole dismantling of unjust relationships.” The only way to truly gain access to what we long for is to secure that others have that right of way, too.
The clearing in Tomas Tranströmer’s poem is the success of access. The clearing is where the sun shines brightly, the ultimate landscape of the Scandinavian Midsommar. It is surrounded by dense forest that prohibits and excludes. To find the clearing, one must first get a little lost—certainly travel off the beaten path. We breach the clearing by not necessarily traveling the path of another, but instead charting unfamiliar territory. The clearing is illumination, where the light reveals the beauty and mystery of life. And everyone is invited into the clearing. One just needs to discover the way, find the access. The clearing becomes even more beautiful when shared in community, when others join in to relish the light, to absorb the love, to truly know value and worth.
The work we are called to do to provide access for others is plentiful and varied. Yesterday, I officiated at a funeral for a man who resided on the elder care campus where I am the chaplain. He was 98 years old and lived a long, full life. He was a World War II veteran and his Quilt of Valor was displayed proudly at the service. George’s military service did not involve combat. George was stationed stateside, and his assignment was to teach recruits to the third-grade level in math and reading before they were sent overseas. His grandson shared this in a special remembrance: “When I think about the world that opened up to these soldiers after they met my grandfather, it’s hard for me to imagine how he could have given more to a humbler group.” In the sharing of skill and knowledge, through the patience of teaching and instruction, George created access.
As we celebrate Scandinavian culture today through music and liturgy, we must remember that at one time Plymouth Church had a Scandinavian Sunday School. In 1870, when Minneapolis was experiencing its first major wave of Swedish and Norwegian immigrants, the Sunday School was started as a response to the parting words of Rev. Henry Stimson. He included in his resignation letter this counsel: “Unless you mean to have a class grow up in your midst, strong, energetic, with undeveloped possibilities, aggressive either for good or evil, and wholly outside of your churches, you must do something, and that promptly and effectively, to reach these young Scandinavians. They are Americans as truly as yourselves. Many of them were born here. All have come to stay. But they are strangers. You must go to them; you must make them sure of a welcome in your churches; you must plan for them and lay hold of them in the mass and as individuals.” Stimson encouraged access and inclusion. Plymouth responded. We can heed these words today, knowing that the “them” to whom Stimson refers are our Muslim neighbors, our black neighbors, our gay neighbors, our refugee neighbors, our poor and hungry neighbors, our lost and lonely neighbors. The church’s mission must be to provide access to full and loving community.
Midsummer celebrates the beauty of nature by welcoming the lengthening light of long midyear days. The light provides access to treasures not experienced or appreciated in the darkness of winter. So, too, when we follow the words of the prophet and invite others into the clearing, do we share in the gifts of life unencumbered, a life of joy. May we not be selfish in this undertaking and squander the light that the clearing opens to us. Instead, may we tear down the guardrails and the warning signs and remove all barriers to the fullness of life.