Text: II Corinthians 6:11-13
Location: Palisades Presbyterian Church, Nyac, NY
Date: March 6th, 2005
When I was a little boy, my mother used to tell me every morning that if I stretched my body three times before getting out of bed, I would become a big boy. I remember stretching my body until I almost disjointed myself because I wanted to be big. I would not get out of bed without stretching three times. Let me tell you a secret: it was not so long ago that I discovered that it wasn’t true. I didn’t actually get any bigger. In any case, the metaphor can be of use here: if we want to grow bigger in any sense, we need to stretch.
In the midst of a long letter to the Corinthians, the apostle Paul reminds the people about something I believe we constantly need to remember: the art and the need of stretching. He says: “… my heart is wild open to you. There is no restriction in our affections but only in yours. In return… open wide your hearts also”. Stretch… open wide
Paul expanded his heart to love the Corinthians. For some reason, his love for them wasn’t an easy one. He said that he had to expand his heart to love them. At the same time, he asks them to expand their hearts and love him in return. Sometimes love requires expansion, the dilatation of our hearts in order to open up spaces for others.
This expansion, this dilatation, this stretching is an art that we learn as we go. Sometimes it is an invitation; sometimes it is a survival tool; sometimes it is the only thing we have.
How does this invitation happen? For instance, how do we stretch theologically? How do we go from one place to another in our beliefs, in our relation to God and to one another?
I was a pastor of a Portuguese speaking Presbyterian Church in Massachusetts for almost 5 years. This church was the home of people from many places in Brazil and also Portugal and the Azorean islands. The big challenge there was to have space for all the members. The congregation was, literally, a religious zoo: Catholics, Lutherans, Anglicans, Methodists, Assembly of God, other Pentecostal churches, Gnostics and even Presbyterians. Moreover, there were also people with no religious background at all. I remember once, a man in his 50’s who was not a member of the church but use to go to church every Sunday saying to me: “Pastor, I love this church, I love the people, I love the worship service, I love your sermons, but I just can’t believe anything. Can I still be part of this congregation?” What to do in this situation? Moreover, what to do when half of the church wanted to support and affirm the two gay couples in the church and the other half wanted everybody to accept Jesus as their personal Lord and Savior and convert the infidels from their sins? As you can imagine, it was a time of unending forms of stretching for all of us.
My question then was: how to honor each one’s faith and still live together? How to make room for each group to approach the table of Eucharist with confidence and openness? We all had to stretch ourselves, our faiths, our beliefs. In this process, we all had to lose. For stretching entails losing things and even parts of our selves in order to gain other things and re-create our lives.
This table in front of us this morning is God’s constant reminder to ourselves that we need to stretch beyond what we believe and think we are. This table is a constant invitation for changing, moving, opening, creating and offering spaces for others that are yet to come, spaces in which we are not used to living. Instead of searching for cohesion in our communities, we should look for ways in which to loosen up our theological boundaries in order to let ourselves be surprised by the work of the Holy Spirit.
This table is this boundless space of our beliefs, hopes and community values. We are responsible for it. What message does this table carry? How far does this table stretches, and how far do we let it stretch?
I personally believe that this table should have no boundaries, should be like what a popular singer says, “like a pocket full of keys that has no bounds”, a table without restraint or obligation. A place in which I am fully responsible for myself and never responsible enough for my sister and my brother. A place without judgments, a place where I do not demand anything, only offer.
At least here, we should say “here I come always unprepared, theologically unarmed; here I give up all my certainties and trust God to take care of each of one of us and foster assurances that only each one of us will know. I come here thinking that I knew God but then I discover that all my beliefs are easy dismantled and redone over and over. Here I come like Saint Augustine who said: ‘I know God until you ask me…’ Here we stretch ourselves to the realms of the impossibilities; here we get fragmented and are made whole at the same time; here I lose and find myself; here I am challenged; here I touch the world; here I welcome the stranger; here I become a little clearer my own limits and see my soul get stretched in unpredictable ways.”
This stretch might be an invitation for all of us. The contours of this table are the counters of our own selves, of this congregation, of you and but also of me; of your last pastor, of your future pastor, of Rwanda, of China, of Iraq or Afghanistan. We are all interconnected. So, here I leave this question for you all to think: what are the contours of this table? What are your own contours? Moreover: In front of this table, what can you give up? Most of the time, church is not about gaining but instead, about stretching and learning how to lose for the benefit of others. Can you lose some here so that everyone gains a little? Paul says: “open wide your hearts” not only to gain but also to lose.
The other kinds of stretches are the ones we use as survival tools, when life takes unexpected turns and takes us to unknown places, places of fear and death. In that sense, in one year I discovered some of my survival tools when I walked in the valley of death. In less than a year, I lost my marriage, I had the ligaments of my knee torn, I was trapped financially by friends and I lost my father. It was a tough year for me. Without knowing it, my soul was stretching desperately into many places in order to find life, ways of coping with pain and learning how not to lose the happiness of life that always fueled me. Along the way I found out that we have more mechanisms of survival that we think we have. One of the strategies to survive in the midst of the valley of death is to link these survival tools with the world surrounding us: friends, e-mails, cards, phone calls, small gestures of kindness… all of it can strengthen our inner sources of life. Moreover, literature, testimonies, movies, etc, help us to see how far we can go in our struggles. Remember the movies “I am Sam”, “Life is beautiful” “Touching the Void” or “Hotel Rwanda”? The list is long.
Have you realized that the two main movies nominated for the Oscar this year, namely “Million Dollar Baby” and “The Aviator” were about stories of two people who had to go beyond their limitations in order to live their lives? They were caught up between their limits and their stretched desires. Life as they had it was not enough for them. The two stories were stories of lack and excess, simplicity and overabundance. The million dollar baby had nothing. She had to struggle with poverty and a very dysfunctional family.
As for the aviator, he was born in a wealthy family and had megalomaniac dreams of making movies and airplanes. At the same time, he had to fight constantly his fear of losing his mind due to his compulsive behavior.
In both stories, there was something else inside of them that made them stretch beyond their limitations. They had in common an unavoidable and obstinate desire. That was what moved them, an unnamed desire. Not a desire for something but a desire. What came as a result of their desire was the consequence of this deep longing. Either boxing or making movies, being a soccer player or a scientist, they had to follow this driving force that made them move. They gave everything they had for this moving desire, a desire that was their own invention, something found in themselves, an unattended necessity to stretch. The only thing they had was a kind of fidelity to their own survival. This desire was not a mean to an end. On the contrary, they did what they had to do just because they didn’t know how to do otherwise. Without knowing it, this desire made them stretch beyond their own limitations.
The stories of Maggie and Howard Hughes tell the stories of our efforts to find ourselves, to re-create ourselves, to invent ourselves. A kind of a radical and inexplicable necessity to keep moving, to fight against what seems to want to destroy us. This need to stretch is what keeps us alive. Contardo Calligaris, a Brazilian psychoanalyst writes that Jacques Lacan once said that the only guilt psychoanalysis recognizes is the guilt of giving up on our desires.
Of course our desire does not mean happiness and the movies show it clearly. But sometimes this desire, a desire for the unknown, with or without psychoanalyses, is the only thing we have to survive, the very thing that keeps waking us up in the morning, that keeps us from giving up .
Sometimes I think that this desire comes with the silent whisper of the Holy Spirit in our ears, as an unmapped trajectory of the wind of God that takes us to unpredictable places and keeps us sound and alive.
For the last 20 days, this wind of God, this desire, this stretching, was present for me in the beautiful saffron gates of Christo and Jean Claude at the Central Park. I went to see them several times. They were for me like announcements of epiphanies yet to come, presences yet to come. They stretched my soul and placed me in a space of waiting… waiting for a future that I do not know or can see or plan.
It was as if something good is coming. Like a letter long ago written that has finally arrived with an answer in a small note saying only: “Get ready!” My city, once sacked, destroyed, turned into ruins is now about to be reconstructed. So, without thinking much I clean up the house, I iron my best clothes, I put on my father’s wristwatch, I dress the streets with colorful banners, I dress the doves with yellow string around their necks and the policemen as clowns.
The band should be ready to go around the streets of the city inviting people for the carnival because this arrivant, this something or somebody is about to arrive.
Listening to Paul’s advice to Corinthians, I open wide my heart, I stretch my soul beyond any horizon of possibilities, I even get closer to an unknown faith and learn that in life I must choose to stretch in order to get bigger, not only to survive but also to get to this point in which I become able to celebrate whatever life and God brings to me. I am not there yet but I will get there. For I know, without knowing how nor why, that the best of life is yet to come.
May God help us in this art of stretching.
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