“What would our lives and the world be like if we actually did take out the trash and let something beautiful grow in its place?” asked the Rev. Susan Sparks at the 9:15 a.m. Friday morning worship service in the Amphitheater.
Her sermon title was “Running with the Horses,” and the theme was possibility. The Scripture reading was Jeremiah 12:1-2, 5.
Before her sermon, she noted that people had asked about the title of her Sunday sermon, “The Mulch Pile,” all week.
“In Wisconsin, we use ‘mulch pile’ as an overarching term for mulch, for little sticks you pile around plants, for compost, or two or more politicians gathered together — bless their little hearts,” Sparks said.
Sparks was talking with her seminary adviser one day about how hard it was to convince the faculty that she could be a Baptist preacher and a comedian. Her adviser, Edwina Maria (Wyn) Wright, was the first African-American woman to receive a Ph.D. from the department of Near Eastern languages and civilizations at Harvard University and was a secret playwright.
Wright looked at her and said, “Susan, do you remember what God said to Jeremiah?” Sparks answered no.
“If you have raced with foot runners and they have wearied you, how will you compete with horses?” Wright quoted.
“That’s in the Bible?” Sparks asked.
Sparks called Jeremiah a prophet who was “spot on for the current world.” His lament for a nation in crisis — for a nation in fear, steeped in violence and hatred — reflects the world of 2017.
Jeremiah asked God why the guilty prospered and the treacherous thrived. God’s response was to ask Jeremiah if he was tired now, how could he run with horses?
“I can see God saying this with a neck roll and a snap at the end,” Sparks said. “Don’t waste your gift of life on petty stuff because that is what the foot runners are — they are things that hold you back.”
Some of the things that hold people back are literal time wasters. One of Sparks’ favorite books is Rabbi Harold Kushner’s When Bad Things Happen to Good People. Another favorite is a parody titled When Bad Christians Happen to Good People. One of the chapters in that book is a parody of WWJD, “What Would Jesus Do”; the chapter’s title is WJSHTOT: “Would Jesus Spend His Time on This?”
One of the things Sparks was sure Jesus would not waste his time on is Pokemon. One Sunday, a parishioner came rushing in, ecstatic that Madison Avenue Baptist Church was a Pokemon Go site. The Pokemon was sitting on Sparks’ robe, and he took a picture of it to capture it.
“Would Jesus waste his time on this?” she asked. “SDI — seriously doubt it.”
She urged the congregation to reframe their days, to stop spending time being worried, angry, jealous or judgmental. Stop wasting time on social media and TV news.
“I found myself posting a Bible study one day that should have taken a minute and a half, and three hours later I was watching a video of a baby elephant in Melbourne, Australia, taking its first steps. I can’t watch TV news,” Sparks said. “It raises my blood pressure and I yell back at the screen, ‘Why do the guilty prosper?’ ”
What horses, then, are we called to run with? In Luke 10:27, Jesus said, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.”
Jesus’ battle cry was a call to love, not in a Hallmark card or Precious Moments way, but as a marching order.
“FYI, there is a battle going on to reclaim justice and righteousness, to rescue joy and hope from judgement and shame,” Sparks said.
People are born with joy and hope and the world beats it out of them, she said, but they are still there and “love, joy and hope are Jesus call to follow him closely.” Sparks recalled a bumper sticker that said, “Are you following Jesus this close?”
As an example, she told about the life of Elizabeth Usher, who was born with Rasmussen’s encephalitis, a disease that causes multiple seizures every day. Usher had to have the left hemisphere of her brain removed and at a meeting of the Association of Therapeutic Humor, she told Sparks that she is the only person she knows who is “in my right mind.”
“Elizabeth did not let doubts, fear or pain get to her,” Sparks said. “She said that God has bigger things in store for her, and she goes to hospitals and other places and shares love and joy.”
God does have more for us, Sparks told the congregation, and it can be scary to step out. When it gets overwhelming, just put one foot in front of the other and keep walking. Mountains are moved one small stone at a time.
Our greatest calling is to love. She quoted Sister Joan Chittister that we all have the “potential to be the human beat of the heart of God.”
She concluded her sermon with another story from the Midwest. She was in Wayland, Minnesota, in May, and the town had a “Stand Still Parade.” All the elements of a parade — the floats, the bands, the honorary officials — stayed still along the parade route and the crowd moved down the parade line.
“It is a fabulous idea for a parade and for life,” Sparks said. “So often we passively watch life go by. It is our turn to move from destructive voices, fear, weakened faith, anger, judgement and shame to joy and hope.”
Our time is now, today, she said.
“Let go of all the forces that hold you back and plant joy and love,” Sparks said. “That is your rightful inheritance. When you own it, that is the moment that you will truly run with horses.”
The Rev. Virginia Carr presided. Lois Raynow read the Scripture. She, her husband and their children first came to Chautauqua for a week’s stay in 1976 and fell in love with the Institution and the many wonderful experiences it offered to all the family. She enjoys all facets of Chautauqua and feels blessed to spend so many summers in Chautauqua. Flutist Barbara Hois, clarinetist Debbie Grohman and pianist Willie La Favor played “Wedding Hymn” by Jennifer Higdon and “Le Calme de la Mer” by Tony Aubin for the prelude. The Motet Choir sang “Steal Away” by Gwyneth Walker under the direction of Jared Jacobsen, organist and coordinator of worship and sacred music. The Jane Robb Shaw Hirsh Endowment and the Edmund E. Robb-Walter C. Shaw Fund provided support for this week’s services.