Radical Amazement (Heschel Series)
September 9, 2018
Rev. Kristin Stoneking
Epworth United Methodist Church, Berkeley, CA
In a surprising move this week, the sports conglomerate, Nike, selected former San Francisco 49ers quarterback, Colin Kaepernick, as one of the faces of its 30th anniversary “Just Do It” campaign. It was surprising because Kaepernick, as I’m sure many of you are well aware, has been at the center of a national controversy that pits honoring the service of those in the military and the American flag against the rights and just treatment of black and brown persons in the United States. That, of course, is a false binary. Serving in our military does not preclude justice for persons of color. The choice to serve in the military is a sacrifice—one gives up one’s control over where one will live and what tasks one will fulfill, and ultimately puts in jeopardy one’s life upon entering the military, and everyone I have ever met who has made this choice has done so to protect and uphold the ideals of this nation that promise freedom of speech, freedom to assemble, and liberty and a justice for all in a system that protects citizens from bias and violence. Justice and freedom for black and brown persons is of course a dimension of that promise.
We know, as reported in the Washington Post and other publications[i], that African Americans and Latino Americans are disproportionately policed, and fatally shot by law enforcement in this country. Many of you know that in my last position as executive director of the Fellowship of Reconciliation, a key priority of our work was rapid response to police shootings of persons of color. There has been a clear national movement since 2014 to shift this reality of bias, but people continue to be shot and to be shot fatally. Colin Kaepernick doesn’t want this to happen anymore, and neither do I and neither, I believe, do any of you. So Kaepernick began to “take a knee” during the national anthem at NFL games to draw attention to this problem. And it is more than a problem; it is a tragedy and our shame as a nation.
Nike’s decision to feature Kaepernick made clear that Nike also doesn’t want black and brown persons to experience any more violence or discrimination at the hands of the state either.
There has been an outcry against Kaepernick and taking a knee during national anthem based on the appropriateness of the venue or the moment, and a questioning of whether African Americans and Latinos really experience biased policing, whether this is really happening or not. And so this is why Nike’s decision was surprising. Corporations often act in the interest of their bottom line first and consider justice second. Stepping into this controversy was surprising because we don’t typically expect a corporation to make such a clear stand for justice.
In the swift and loud response that followed Nike’s decision, there have been critics on all sides—critics who never supported Kaepernick’s right to express himself in the first place or the plea for justice he was making, and cynics who say that Nike made a business decision. They refuse to be surprised.
Our capacity to be open to surprise, and then to see the good and hold wonder, is actually a critical component of our faith and our capacity to be faithful. As humans living today in a world, a nation and a news cycle that can bear down on us with bad news, the willingness to be open to the surprise of goodness or courage or hope showing up unexpectedly is the way to break into the cycle of bad news. It is a way to put aside criticism and cynicism and accept that we have a God who is not like us only more so, but that we are like God, only infinitesimally less. We actually. aren’t. God. To be able to be surprised is to acknowledge, with humility, that in spite of evidence to the contrary, THE benevolent force with power beyond our imaginings is at work. Faith is when we lean in to this force that is pulling the world and our existence toward good and justice, give over to it and become one with it.
When our surprise doesn’t give way to inspiration at an act of courage or appreciation at an expression of altruism, we are deep in disconnection from the source of true life.
It’s interesting to me that Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, the Jewish theologian of whom I spoke last week was so able to beautifully articulate this necessary dimension of surprise and wonder when his own story could have led so easily to cynicism and despair. Heschel was born in Poland in 1907, a descendent of a long line of Hasidic rabbis. He moved to Germany as a young man to be educated under the leading Jewish thinkers of the day. He writes of this time as rich with relationship and joy in the academic enterprise. But in October of 1938, he was deported by the Gestapo to Warsaw and six months before the invasion of Poland by the Nazis, he was forced to escape to the United States by way of London. His mother and three sisters died in the Holocaust, leaving him nearly without family.
And yet, a core teaching of Heschel was that we should live our lives always exercising our capacity to be surprised and to wonder. He writes, ““Our goal should be to live life in radical amazement. Get up in the morning and look at the world in a way that takes nothing for granted. Everything is phenomenal; everything is incredible; never treat life casually. To be spiritual is to be amazed.”
Yesterday thousands, including a contingent from Epworth, led by Al Kueffner and MaAn Barcello raised their voices on behalf of our climate in the march for climate, jobs and justice. At the same time that we act to protect the earth, we can stand in radical amazement of our place in this creation, remembering that we are stardust and to stardust we shall return. We can stand in radical amazement of the buds and blooms that flower even in inhospitable climates and of all signs of creation that hint that our partner in seeking health for the earth is a power beyond our imaginings.
“As civilization advances,” Heschel writes, “the sense of wonder declines. Such decline is an alarming symptom of our state of mind. The beginning of our happiness lies in the understanding that life without wonder is not worth living.”
That sounds good, you may be thinking. I want to get up in the morning and live in radical amazement. But something holds us back. I believe what is often fueling this holding back of wonder and awe is a belief that we know better. We’ve seen it all before. We are too sophisticated to be truly amazed or surprised by anything. We’ve been there, done that, and we’ve seen how it turns out. Gretchen Rubin the author of The Happiness Project writes of this phenomenon in the chapter entitled “Contemplating the Heavens,” “Of course it’s cooler not to be too happy. There’s a goofiness to happiness, an innocence, a readiness to be pleased. Zest and enthusiasm take energy, humility, and engagement; taking refuge in irony, exercising destructive criticism, or assuming an air of philosophical ennui is less taxing. Also, irony and world-weariness allow people a level of detachment from their choices.”
It is risky to be willing to be amazed and it takes energy. When we are willing to be amazed, we also must put aside the excuses for why we cannot live with openness, equanimity and hope, and then move forward with intentionality.
Our scripture today is Psalm 147 which is one of the last six Psalms in the book which are known as Hallelujah Psalms. They are songs of abundant exclamations of praise to the Lord.
In Jewish liturgical tradition, these last six Psalms are recited every day as part of what is known as “the daily Halal”, a piece of the preliminary prayers of the morning synagogue service. These prayers make clear that worship must be rooted “in creatureliness: we who worship are, first and always, God's handiwork, part (and only part) of God's creation,” and it is within that basic context that we can ground our sense of awe, wonder and surprise. Daily worship in the Jewish tradition begins by recalling this fundamental fact of life.
This evening at sundown, the Jewish high holiday of Rosh Hoshanah begins. For Jews, this marks the beginning of a New Year. How beautiful and essential to ground the opening of a new year in wonder and in radical amazement. As Christians, we are part of this larger tradition. Though Christians have a different calendar, consciousness of the rhythms and meaning-making of our Jewish siblings is a way to more deeply understand our own tradition.
On this day, then, let us prepare with our Jewish siblings to begin a new chapter, and ground ourselves in wonder, hearing these words from Rabbi Heschel, “What we lack is not a will to believe but a will to wonder.”
I invite you now, to close your eyes, and to open to newness, to the possibility of being surprised today by goodness, by altruism, by courage, by selflessness, by unwarranted gratitude and, by humility and to wonder as I share these words from Jewish liturgist and poet Alden Solovy:
When the mountains sing, When the seas dance, When a crescent moon glides the heavens And the sun lifts day from night, When the rivers waltz to hymns of rain, And the oceans drum on cliffs of stone, When the caper bush wakes And the wild iris blooms, Remember this, It’s not the wind that lifts the eagle. The eagle lifts the wind.
You are the love That frees the baritone hills And the pirouette skies, A shaft of light to loose the crescendos of glory And the colors of awe, A heartbeat summoning the rhythm of wonder, A yearning to hear the pulse of G-d.
When silence resounds with music, When darkness radiates light, When creation reaches up From the core of the earth, And eternity is a breeze From the edge of the universe, When the call to holiness shines brilliant In the breathless dawn, Remember this, It’s not the prayer that lifts the blessing. The blessing lifts the prayer.[ii]
[i] https://www.washingtonpost.com/national/study-finds-police-fatally-shoot-unarmed-black-men-at-disproportionate-rates/2016/04/06/e494563e-fa74-11e5-80e4-c381214de1a3_story.html?utm_term=.4eb805686bce, accessed September 7, 2018
[ii] https://www.ritualwell.org/blog/rhythm-wonder-prayer-radical-amazement, accessed September 7, 2018.