The great architect Frank Lloyd Wright was fond of an incident that may have seemed insignificant at the time but profoundly influenced the rest of his life. The winter he was 9, he walked across a snow-covered field with his reserved, no-nonsense uncle. As the two of them reached the far end of the field, his uncle stopped him. He pointed out his tracks in the snow, straight and true as an arrow’s flight, and then young Frank’s tracks meandering all over the field. “Notice how your tracks wander aimlessly from the fence to the cattle to the woods and back again,” his uncle said. “And see how my tracks aim directly to my goal. There is an important lesson in that.”1
The Arrow of Time
Rev. Dr. Jenny Shultz-Thomas
Years later, the world-famous architect liked to tell this story and how exactly his uncle’s great wisdom had influenced his philosophy in life. “I determined right then,” he’d say with a twinkle in his eye, “not to miss the things in life my uncle had missed.”2
This morning, we will explore Jesus’ journey from synagogue to house, field, mountain, town, leper, woman, child, healing, prayer, life to death, his love poured out like a fountain…
-Let us pray-
My favorite Pastor, Margaret Wheatley, author of Leadership and the New Science, wrote an even better book published in 2017 called “Who Do We Choose to Be? Facing reality, claiming leadership, restoring sanity.” In the book, she includes a chapter titled “The Arrow of Time: Everything Has a Beginning, a Middle, and an End.3
A social scientist and self-acclaimed social activist herself, she states right off the bat—“it’s a bitter pill for activists and all people with discerning, open hearts to swallow. Still, we can no longer solve the global problems of this time at large-scale levels: poverty, economics, climate change, violence, and dehumanization. Even though the solutions have been available for a very long time, they require conditions to implement them that are not available: political courage, collaboration across national boundaries, and compassion that supersedes self-interest and greed. She writes that these are not only the failings of our specific time in history, but they occur in all civilizations at the end of their life cycle.”4
As she names it, the arrow of time has a beginning, a middle, and an ending. History repeats itself, and all current signs indicate this arrow’s impending end. She asks the leaders of this age what they will do about it.
Rather than idealize what even the fiercest, most committed, large social and spiritual movements are capable of, she calls on leaders from every corner of the globe to rise to this time and meet the moments as they come with courage, resiliency, and strength, compelling those in leadership to create what she calls islands of sanity upon which to do the work one faithful step at a time.
I want to think we are that kind of place- a sanctuary, a refugee, an island of sanity where our faith and compassion carve out the brave space we need to rise as one body— to be a lighthouse amid the polarized, violent landscape of our time, for those seeking God’s presence, a center- same in these uncertain chaotic times.
Many in Western society have chosen the narrow, reasonable path— of Frank Lloyd Wright’s uncle, abandoning curiosity of their surroundings, of other humans, cultures, and civilizations, forgetting the environment/the natural world on which our species depends—-all in the name of “progress.” Progress, a recent addition to human thought, appeared in the 17th century, reached full bloom in the 19th century, and was severely challenged in the 20th-century wars that killed 100 million people. (First and Second World Wars and Vietnam) Progress did not appear in other cultures, or Western thought until 300 years ago.5
Many see the rise of social power based on the ballooning use of artificial intelligence as the great equalizer, the opportunity to thwart the arrow of time off its path, slowing it down, even stopping the arc of human civilization’s historical record in its tracks as humans seek to be nothing shy of invincible, immortal, all-powerful.
As recent as 2016, Elon Musk spoke at an event for tech industry leaders, offered a mind-blowing future of neural lace implanted in the human jugular, a representative democracy on Mars, and the real possibility that we’re living in a video game simulation.6 A research study published last August stated that it would only take 22 people to colonize Mars, and whether the first Martians were agreeable or contrary would determine how long they lived.7 It Looks like Nebraska nice wins the day!
No matter what happens on Earth, we get a second chance. (Well, only a few of us do.)8
Oh sweet Progress…
Wheatley’s research includes the work of Ronald Wright, a Canadian writer and historian, who has labeled our belief in technology to fix the messes we’ve made and to save us from decline “The Progress Trap.” Wheatley explains, “We have come to believe that even if other civilizations failed, ours will not. It cannot be because we are so talented, creative, and concerned. Look at all these amazing technologies that will soon solve all our problems. Artificial Intelligence; privately funded space travel; artificial foods; farmed fish; pills to make us smart, prevent aging, and prolong sex; medical breakthroughs to grow human organs in animals; neuroscience to fix every problematic behavior— how could anyone deny we’re Making Progress?9
Whealty suggests otherwise, saying, “There is nothing new under the sun.”10 The science of living systems is a powerful explanator of human behavior and our world.
Though our earliest innate human senses call us to meander all over the field paying attention to the wonders of life around us, jumping in mud puddles with Gossie, like young Frank did, from the fence to the cattle to the woods to the stars, the push for Progress and the pull towards the human agency, independent of the living systems that make up this entire ecosystem of living things, the same one our great God called “good” —this ever-growing, narcissistic, anthropocentric identity crisis is sucking us dry—
Dry–of the human empathy, compassion, and engagement that alone can help us create human-oriented solutions that nurture the human soul rather than create hyper-bionic saviors that seek to preserve only the shadows of human existence. Wheatley’s explanations are pretty glib as they reveal a society of increasing narcissism, polarization, conflict, aggression, climate change, species loss, and human apathy. But her question is, who do you choose to be? And her call to use whatever power and influence we have to create islands of sanity is at the heart of the gospel.
As we grow ever-nearer to the presidential election season in the United States, the worst of humanity is coming clearer into view as if under a microscope. We are more aware of our divisions and less comfortable with those on the other side of the aisle. As Wheatley proclaims, we are comprised of living systems, and as history repeats, we organize ourselves in self-perpetuating cycles to narrowly weed out the “other.”
Perhaps following Jesus’ meandering footsteps will help us seek an alternate path and lay down stepping stones of faith that will mark for us a new way to be human, a map that will guide us to rehumanize those we’ve cast aside for progress’ sake, and reprioritize the humanity that reflects our own, naming empathy and understanding as significant markers of Progress. This work is hard— it doesn’t mean we have to like each other; it means we have to seek the tools of our faith to love those with whom we disagree and to dignify those we don’t understand.
Jesus had to resist the straight and narrow path intentionally, the one that wanted him to wear the robe and crown that would have perpetuated God’s kingdom on Earth alone, rather than finding Heaven come down in the form of the lowly, the weak, and oppressed. Mark writes that Jesus left the synagogue and went to the synagogue in the neighboring town to do more miraculous healing.
No, it doesn’t. It says as soon as Jesus left the synagogue, he went straight to the home of Andrew and Simon Peter, where he healed a woman.
The straight and narrow path would have had Jesus bouncing from city center to city center, healing and preaching, rising to fame and honor, and healing the wealthiest men in society.
Instead, he chose to heal a woman, his friend’s mother-in-law. Mark writes that by sundown, the crowd had followed him to the private home of his disciples. Mark reports that the whole city was gathered around the door.
After healing the mother-in-law and many who were sick and demon-possessed, it was late— they were tired, and so they slept.
With the whole city at your front door, it would be easy to awaken to your newly found fame and boil yourself a cup of coffee, put on your best clothes, and march into the center of the crowd with your head held high for your next magic act to eww and awe your new fans.
But instead, Jesus resists this narrow path and meanders from the synagogue to the house, to the bed, to a deserted place, alone, where he prays.
As the arrow of time persists across these centuries of civilization, we are drawn to create new patterns of behavior that will be a sign for all the world that God’s kin-don is coming. The work is undergirded by rest, and the path is only illumined through prayer and meditation by listening for God’s presence amid the chaos.
We have seen the signs; they are printed on newsprint, scrolling across our devices, and on the lips of every politician dancing for votes—the actual signs are on the sidewalks in the bus stations and living underneath where most of us walk. They aren’t pointing towards a kingdom of peace and prosperity for all. The headlines speak boldly of human demise, another miscalculation by a generation whose inflated egos and inverted priorities have them seeking the world one door-dashed convenience at a time.
These signs, stories and experiences of our neighbors remind us that the narrow path pursues power and feeds on greed rather than love and sacrifice. The narrow path offers healing with a paywall, of course, to only those of the highest society, touches only the wounds of the wealthiest, never ventures left or right, and certainly never retreats alone to the silence or seeks connection with God’s face.
In the 1st Century CE, Jesus’ life was a formal act of resistance to what human behavior asserts as normative. He scoffed at the royals and ate with the lowly. He fed the hungry, held the orphaned, and stayed with the widows. With each new civil society,’ each generation matures socioeconomically, aspiring to more, creating and designing new modes and mechanisms for growth, and then is derailed by its insistence on greed as Progress, and thus erodes morally as decadence wins the day, leaving in the ashes the rubble of justice.
Church We can meander, picking up the pieces as we go, dusting off our arrogance and start chipping away at the walls we’ve built between us, or we can show up unmoved, unchanged, and chained to the narrow path, insisting on the status quo for progress’ sake.
“Everyone is searching for you,” Simon told Jesus when he found him meandering in a deserted place, alone and praying.
The world we have created, frenzied, addicted, broken, and greedy, will always be there searching, knocking at the front door, crowding at the back, demanding a show, seeking the riches of God’s kingdom as their own. Still, the real question isn’t for the crowd; it isn’t even for Jesus today. The real question is for those whom Jesus called to follow him— as he walked from the synagogue to the house and then to the silence where he prayed- resisting the robe and crown, insisting on seeking God’s face.
The real question for God’s people is:
Who do we choose to be?
1 https://uploads.weconnect.com/mce/599e9ef3575ae3622fe4bc5b1b01c3705a7e848c/ Homily5B2021.pdf
7 https://www.livescience.com/space/mars/just-22-people-are-needed-to-colonize-mars-as- long-as-they-are-the-right-personality-type-study-claims