A sermon preached by Brian J. Mason
First Universalist Unitarian Church of Wausau
September 17, 2017
However many weeks ago it was, I drove from my new home here in Wausau to my wife’s hometown in southern Illinois. I had more than a few reasons to want to go; of course, I wanted to see my wife and daughter who had just returned from Houston, Texas; also, my car had broken down there during my move to Wisconsin, so I needed to settle up with the mechanic. But if I am to be completely honest, I really wanted to see total eclipse.
Since boyhood I’ve had telescopes and star maps. Most of the books I read in childhood were science fiction. My head has always, in more ways than one, been lost in the clouds.
By the time I got to the hotel in southern Illinois the evening before Monday’s eclipse there were already hundreds of cars in the parking lot, with license plates from Massachusetts, Florida, Texas, New York, New Jersey, Wisconsin, and elsewhere. There were some estimates that said Mt. Vernon, population of about 15,000, had grown overnight to somewhere between 30-45,000 people.
I went out to dinner by myself that evening, and in the unusually overcrowded café were entire families, fathers with their daughters, friends and lovers and more sitting behind half-eaten sandwiches and bowls of soup with their heads nose-deep in maps – paper maps!
It dawned on me that up until that moment I hadn’t seen, nor personally used a paper map since my days in Boy Scouts. So, I couldn’t help myself, I just had to ask a couple nearby, “why are you looking at a map? Don’t you use your phone as a GPS”? The woman answered, “Oh, gosh yes. But we think that’s what most people will be doing, so we’re using a map to plot a rural route directly to the path of totality.”
I pondered this couple’s dedication as I walked back to my hotel. Cutting through the parking lot I spotted a man grabbing not one or two, but three cases of beer out of the trunk of his car.
Being the nice Midwesterner that I am I offered the man a hand inside when I noticed the license plate on his car pegged him as a Wisconsinite (Madison to be specific). When New Yorkers and Floridians are painfully plotting courses through Illinois farmland, Wisconsinites are hard at work on 36 cold beers.
The next morning at the hotel’s continental breakfast hundreds of people hurriedly ate the egg and sausage-like material and quickly rushed out the doors wearing shirts that read “Total Blackout-2017,” and other clever eclipse-themed shirts. (And let it be stated for the record that the man from Wisconsin was nowhere to be found.)
My brother-in-law’s girlfriend led a caravan of my wife’s family down dirt roads between fields and farms; roads usually taken only by locals and farmers and cows were now packed with cars.
In little Sesser, Illinois, where we were headed, population 1,800, with one stop sign and a gas station, became, for people traveling south, a vehicular purgatory, as cars were unable to move from that one stop sign in front of the one gas station on to the highway as hundreds, if not thousands of cars had clogged the tiny country highway, making it almost impossible to escape the first instance of traffic Sesser had experienced in the history of human existence.
The farm where we were to experience the event has been in the family for decades. The farm’s owner, at 93, has delegated the operation to his children and in-laws who live here and there on the property. The old man initially said he wanted to watch the eclipse on the TV, as he liked listening to the music being played. In the background, amidst the cicadas and the rustling leaves was Bonnie Tyler singing “Total Eclipse of the Heart,” which was followed by “Black Hole Sun” and eventually Ozzy Osbourne’s “Bark at the Moon.”
But finally, after some coaxing, the old man turned off the TV and joined us under his carport, saying to himself as he plopped down into a lawn chair, “might as well, this’ll be my last one.”
And like children, we all began impatiently checking the sun with our special, NASA certified sunglasses. And finally, in the top right side of the sun the moon appeared, as if it weren’t hiding in the sun’s radiance the whole time; the plain magic of geometry reminded me that the same scene I saw before me was now history to those who live west of the Mississippi River. For us, east of the river, it would soon be our moment alone with the sun and earth and moon.
At first all of us were giddy with excitement, filling the time before with expectant chatter, sharing facts and amazement at the sharpening of the shadows. Just before the total eclipse I could see in my own shadow individual strands of my hair.
Slowly we watched the day turn to dusk. The cicadas slowly stopped singing, the chickens returned to their roost, and each of us became as silent as monastery monks.
When totality finally happened, nothing could be seen behind the protective glasses. So, I threw them off, tightly shut my eyes and looked up. And like a scene described in one of the science fiction books I read in childhood, I opened my eyes to the blacked-out sun; only a slowly flowing ring of light was there in the sky. Very slowly a star or two emerged. My daughter, talking through her laughter, commented on the nighttime in the daytime.
My mind turned to the hundreds, thousands, and perhaps millions of people who, like us, were standing in awe of this marvelous event.
For a short time, I, and I’ll assume others, forgot about the threats of nuclear war, or the removal of monuments, or the president’s twitter feed. In person, on television, and through the Internet, millions of people joined each other in a moment of shared awe.
Psychologists have only recently begun to study awe. Their preliminary findings reveal that experiencing awe makes people feel at one with nature, closer to the divine, and closer to their fellow human beings. Awe reminds people of their finitude, but also the miracle of life itself. And perhaps most importantly, in an era such as ours, psychologists believe that it may inspire people to forego their own special interests in favor of the needs of the many. But I’ll save that topic for another sermon, and instead focus this one on the holy aspects of awe.
Psychologists list moments in nature inspiriting this sensation. They also list music, attending concerts, and experiencing great art as capable of producing it too. But they also list simple acts of love and devotion as sources too, which seems to make sense to me.
I can easily remember standing beside my wife as she gave birth to our daughter. Even though 14 hours of labor was clearly written all over her face, not to mention the hospital gown covered in new and very old stains, I had never seen her as beautiful as I did in that moment. And when the doctor raised my crying daughter into the air and said “Congratulations, dad,” it took a great amount of self-control to not leap across the room and kiss and hug each of the doctors and nurses just for being there with me in that moment.
To feel the magnitude of life itself doesn’t require eclipses or mountains or ocean vistas, as extraordinary and necessary as they are; all it takes is being present in the everyday, being present in life and in love.
Because the truth is that the sacred is not elsewhere, or some-when specific, nor is it in the rare and ethereal; the sacred, my friends, is right here amongst us, the sacred is the ordinary. But I do a bad job living this truth; I have to be reminded of it time-to-time.
I’m thinking of the summer after my first year in seminary. I was completing a requirement all UU ministers must, serving 400 hours in a clinical ministry setting.
I was placed in a hospital, of course, because that’s the best place for ministers who feel queasy at the sound of someone clipping their nails, let alone the sight of blood.
I was 28-years-old; and had only experienced the death of my grandmother and grandfather.
It was late one night when of the critical care attending physician called me, the chaplain, to administer a “sending prayer” for a man whose family had decided to withdraw care. I politely explained to the doctor that I had no idea what a sending prayer was, to which she responded, “well me either, but I’m not doing this alone, so get down here ASAP.”
So, I slowly got up, brushed the Cheez-It crumbs off my shirt, fixed my pants and tie in the mirror and set out to the ICU.
At that time in my life I don’t think I uttered a prayer aloud since childhood, so the thought that I’d soon be praying for a man and his family already had me feeling anxious. And by the time the ICU doors clicked open and I saw about 50 people giving me the “it’s about time you got here” look it’s a wonder I didn’t slip into cardiac arrest on the spot.
The doctor who called me emerged from the crowd with a young man on her arm. She introduced the man as the patient’s son. The man, who couldn’t have been much older than me looked at me and said, “I need you to pray for my dad. He wasn’t the nicest guy, and he never treated my mom too good. All these people you see here are his kids—he was married 11 times—I need you to tell my dad that everything’s going to be ok, and that we love him no matter what.”
And with that the doctor and I made our way to the head of the man’s bed. Each of the man’s loved ones reached their hands toward the doctor and I as we walked past, as if to take or touch some of what was to come. We formed a chain by joining our hands together and I prayed.
The only things I remember saying was thanks—thanks for the grace and gift of this man to these people, and the opportunity he had to make a life.
I even said thanks for his weaknesses and his faults, but also for the laughter he sparked and shared, and then I welcomed him into his rebirth into memory and love.
There at the bedside of this man, his people were gathered to thank him for his life and what he meant to them, to say goodbye, and to wish him well on the journey ahead.
It wasn’t a rock concert or a Grand Canyon or an ocean expanse that inspired them to forego their own special interests. Rather, it was the very basic thing that unifies each of us that brought them there that evening: Life and Death. Events as everyday as the rising and setting of the sun and moon; and yet, each are oh so capable of making us aware of the magnitude and miracle of the chance we get to make what we will of our one precious life, and share what we’ve made of it with friends and lovers.
And so, I watched the eclipse until the sun moved just a bit to the left, restoring the light to the day.
As I drove back home to Wisconsin that afternoon, passing cars and people in gas stations and restaurants I thought about how it is in fact the everyday that shows so brightly at times reminding us how awe-inspiring the ordinary can be. It’s just that sometimes it takes the sun and moon to remind us just how miraculous life truly is.
And that, if I were to venture a guess, is just what the man from Wisconsin was toasting to that night. Amen and Blessed Be.