“O, The Places You’ll Go”
A sermon by Rev. Aaron Fulp-Eickstaedt
At Immanuel Presbyterian Church, McLean VA
On June 10th, 2012
Ezekiel 1:15-21; John 16:28-33
Our first passage for today is from the book of the prophet Ezekiel. We don’t read from the book of Ezekiel very often. Ezekiel was a young Jewish priest, who accompanied the people of Israel into exile in Babylon in the first deportation, in 597 B.C.E., ten years before Jerusalem was sacked. In the verses leading up to the text I’m about to read, Ezekiel, who is on the banks of the river Chebar in Babylon, has a vision of God. It’s a lot like a weird dream. Almost like he’s gotten hold of the wrong sort of mushroom.
Ezekiel has a lot of those kinds of dreams. (Perhaps that’s one of the reasons we don’t read from Ezekiel that much…)
Anyway, in this particular dream he sees a cloud coming from the north with brightness and fire flashing from it and in the cloud, he says, there is (are?) something like four living creatures in human form, with four faces and four wings: the face of a human in front, the face of a lion on the right, the face of an ox on the left, the face of an eagle on the back. And the four creatures are darting all around.
In today’s text Ezekiel goes on to describe how each of these creatures in the cloud has a wheel beside them, and there is a wheel within each wheel so that one wheel is on the north south axis and the other one is on the east west axis. This is to facilitate the wheel going in any direction it might choose. And the rim of each wheel is full of eyes all around.
Listen now to a part of Ezekiel’s vision. Hear it as a description of the mobility of God, for people who needed to hear that God’s presence went with them wherever they traveled. God’s presence wasn’t tied to one space or time in their history. God could go with them into something new. Even something painful.
As I looked at the living creatures, I saw a wheel on the earth beside the living creatures, one for each of the four of them. As for the appearance of the wheels and their construction: their appearance was like the gleaming of beryl; and the four had the same form, their construction being something like a wheel within a wheel. When they moved, they moved in any of the four directions without veering as they moved. Their rims were tall and awesome, for the rims of all four were full of eyes all round. When the living creatures moved, the wheels moved beside them; and when the living creatures rose from the earth, the wheels rose. Wherever the spirit would go, they went, and the wheels rose along with them; for the spirit of the living creatures was in the wheels. When they moved, the others moved; when they stopped, the others stopped; and when they rose from the earth, the wheels rose along with them; for the spirit of the living creatures was in the wheels.
Our second passage is from John’s Gospel. Jesus is with the disciples in the Upper Room on the night before his crucifixion. He’s had a last supper with them, he’s washed their feet, and now he’s trying to get a last bit of teaching in before the events of the next 24 hours unfold. So he’s launched into what is essentially a monologue with an occasional question thrown in from the disciples.
The whole thing feels a little bit like the speech a parent gives to his or her child on the car ride to drop them off at college for the first time. You know, trying to shoehorn in a last little bit of wisdom before a big life transition occurs… When you drop a child off at college, things are never quite the same after that, right?
This passage is from the very end of Jesus’ last speech, right before he starts his prayer for the disciples in chapter 17.
I came from the Father and have come into the world; again, I am leaving the world and am going to the Father.’ His disciples said, ‘Yes, now you are speaking plainly, not in any figure of speech! Now we know that you know all things, and do not need to have anyone question you; by this we believe that you came from God.’ Jesus answered them, ‘Do you now believe? The hour is coming, indeed it has come, when you will be scattered, each one to his home, and you will leave me alone. Yet I am not alone because the Father is with me. I have said this to you, so that in me you may have peace. In the world you face persecution. But take courage; I have conquered the world!’
Today we begin what I hope is a new Immanuel tradition of giving our graduating high school seniors the book, O, The Places You’ll Go, by Dr. Seuss. I think that’s an inspired choice. And what’s even more inspired is the fact that a number of us from this church community have taken the opportunity to write our well-wishes to the seniors in the books…
O, The Places You’ll Go is not heavy theology. It’s not Calvin’s Institutes or Barth’s Dogmatics Or even Brian McLaren’s A New Kind of Christianity. It’s not the book we used to give our high school graduates Lest Innocent Blood Be Shed, the inspiring story of how some Christians in France during World War II were guided by their Reformed faith to protect their vulnerable Jewish neighbors. It’s not God’s Answers for Graduates, 2012 (you can find that one in your local book store) or A Survival Guide for Christians on Campus: How To Be Students and Disciples At the Same Time (you can find that in your local book store, too).
Oh, The Places You’ll Go is not heavy theology. It is filled with nuggets of deep wisdom, however. Maybe the biggest of those nuggets is also the simplest, that life is a journey that takes us to all sorts of different places. That’s not just true for high school and college and business school graduates, of course. It’s true for all of us.
Life goes on and on as we transition from one stage to another stage. Whether that means retiring from the Session as an active elder or moving to a new living situation. Whether it’s watching a child graduate from high school or heading off to the college for the first time. Whether it’s welcoming a new baby into your life or dealing with the death of a precious loved one. Life is filled with transitions.
When I look at my 19 and 17 year old daughters, sometimes it seems like just yesterday that we were bringing them home from Glens Falls Hospital. Now one is in college and the other is entering her senior year in high school. Weren’t they little girls when we arrived here 7 years ago? They were… Weren’t they?
Over the past two or three years at the weddings I’ve officiated I’ve without fail found myself getting a slight catch in my throat as the bride comes down the aisle with her father. I think this is because it is much easier now for me to imagine that one day I’ll be in the father of bride’s shoes than it was when I officiated the first wedding I ever conducted, 20 years ago.
Life takes us places. Sometimes they are geographical places we very intentionally choose. Like deciding, with acceptance letters in hand, between Tech and UVA or Harvard and Princeton. Like opting to take a job offer in another state, or moving from one house to another house right here in McLean. Sometimes the moves we make and the places life takes us are geographical. But sometimes the places life takes us are less geographical and more situational.
You know what that’s like, too. Your best friend in the whole world gets transferred to California; and you talk about Skyping and you know you have email and texts but it won’t be the same as it was when you were able to get together for coffee every Tuesday afternoon.
You experience some great betrayal in a relationship. Someone lets you down, not in a small way (that happens), but in a huge, life-altering way —and it is never going to be the same.
Your body which was always so strong, so capable, begins to fail you… Slowly at first, but all of the sudden you realize how much you’d taken for granted. The eyes aren’t as sharp; the knees start to go; you get acquainted with what a friend of mind calls old Arthur—arthur-itis. It’s harder to get your breath now than it once was. And dealing with all of that may or may not be as hard as coping with the prospect of moving out of the home you have lived in for umpteen years.
Life takes us places. Some illness strikes you or a loved one, a natural disaster occurs, the car breaks down. Changes come at work, in the country, or even at church. Changes that you never would have chosen…. John Lennon was right. Life is what happens to you while you are busy making other plans.
So I have just the tiniest little quibble with Dr. Seuss when he writes: “You have brains in your head. You have feet in your shoes. You can steer yourself any direction you choose. You’re on your own. And you know what you know. And YOU are the one who’ll decide where to go…”
Now what I love about that piece of his advice is that we do have brains and feet and hands and hearts, and we can and do make choices, even if it is just the choice about how to react to something over which we have little control. But there’s so much in life in which we have little say.
We do have choices, of course. Even when it seems like we have no control over our circumstances, we can choose to steer the ship of our attitude in a positive direction or a negative direction, we can steer towards kindness and grace or towards bitterness. We DO get to choose that.
But where Seuss is really wrong is in saying that you’re on your own. We’re not on our own. That’s what I hope you graduates and everyone else here will remember. We are not finally on our own. We have the love of God, the support of a community of faith, and the stories of scripture to carry with us.
As one of our graduates reminded us in her Youth Sunday sermon, they make our mark on us. God’s love, the way it gets expressed in community, the memories we make, the stories we share —as she said, they are like tattoos on us—and they go with us wherever we go. God goes with us wherever we go.
This is what Ezekiel’s crazy vision was all about, by the way. It was God’s way of communicating to him and to the people that no matter where the people went, no matter what they went through God was going with them. They didn’t worship a God who was stuck in Jerusalem. They served a God on wheels, who could go with them all the places they went. Including into exile in Babylon. Including into times when they felt utterly abandoned.
Times when they experienced in their guts what Dr. Seuss meant by:
And when you’re alone there’s a very good chance
you’ll meet things that scare you right out of your pants
There are some, down the road between hither and yon,
that can scare you so much you won’t want to go on.
God would also go with them to the place Dr. Seuss was thinking of when he wrote:
You will come to a place where the streets are not marked.
Some windows are lighted, but mostly they’re darked.
A place you could sprain both your elbow and chin!
Do you dare to stay out? Do you dare to go in?
How much can you lose? How much can you win?
God will go with you into those moments, too. Because God isn’t stuck in one place.
I occasionally read a blog from a Presbyterian minister named Chris Glaser. One of his recent posts talked about whether spirituality is more like hang gliding or more like mud wrestling. Glaser says that some people think that spirituality is like hang gliding that it means you kind of glide over the troubles in your life and you are equipped to just rise above everything. But Glaser says he’s more convinced by the view that claims that spirituality is more like mud wrestling: getting down into the middle of life and all of its challenges and problems, wrestling with life, and wrestling sometimes with God and not letting God go until God blesses you.
In his post, he shared a piece from an article in the New York Times Magazine, from a series devoted to the proposition that “health is all in our minds.” In the article, says Glaser, “A man named Daniel Smith wrote about his and his brother’s lifelong struggle with debilitating anxiety. Smith concluded anxiety was his ‘best teacher’ —but not of itself, rather because of his ‘lifelong effort to think clearly and act well in spite of it.’”
It was this piece of Smith’s article that made me most grateful for what you graduates, and what all of us, have to carry with us:
My brother and I grew up in a Jewish but largely secular home. Each of us had a bar mitzvah, but we managed to emerge from childhood with little understanding of, and littler faith in, religious texts. [My brother] is convinced that our lack of religion has handicapped us psychologically. “It’s not really fair, when you think about it,” he told me…. “We’re surrounded by people who came into this world with these portable little bundles of certainty, these neat foundational texts. They don’t have to go rooting around for comforting words. What do we have? What did we get? Nothing. A handful of movies and a few of Dad’s jokes. We’re at sea. We’ve always been at sea.”
Now I am not suggesting that we here at Immanuel have little, tight, neatly wrapped bundles of certainty that we carry with us. But we do have some things that we can count on. We can count on a community of faith that gathers around texts of scripture. We can count on stories that fund and nurture our imaginations; that grow in the garden of our minds, to quote Mr. Rogers. We can count on a God who goes with us into challenges. And we can count on the truth that we are, all of us are, all of us in the whole wide world are, children of God. All of us. No exceptions.
Several days ago, I took my opportunity to write my notes in the O The Places You’ll Go Books for our seniors. The books were all laid out before me and I thought to myself, “I’ve got to write something specific and meaningful for each of the young people.” I started in on that task, and as my colleague Dan Thomas can tell you, it’s a little harder than you might think. You start in and you wonder, “Did I say that already? Did I say that about another one of the graduates?” You eventually wind up thinking, “I’ll say as much as I can that’s unique, but there are some things that I need to make sure that I don’t miss saying to each of them.”
So at the end of my message in every book, I wrote something like this: “Remember who you are. You are a child of God. Don’t you forget that.” By the way, that’s the essence of the message I gave to my older daughter when I dropped her off at college last August. It will be the essence of the message I give to my younger daughter when I drop her off at college two Augusts from now. It will be what I will tell each of them on their respective wedding days. And it is what I hope they will tell me on the day I die….
In Jesus’ name. Amen.