The Snail and the Hermit Crab Sunday, January 3, 2016
A man and a woman had been married for more than sixty years. They had shared everything. They had talked about everything, they had kept no secrets from each other except the old woman had a shoe box in the top of her closet that she had cautioned her husband never to open or to ask about. For all those years he had honored her caution, he had never thought about the box or been tempted to pry, but one day the old woman got very sick and the doctor said she would not recover. In trying to sort out their affairs, the old man took down the shoebox and took it to his wife’s bedside. She agreed that it was time he should know what was in the box. When he opened it, he found two knitted dolls and a stack of money. $94,450!
He asked her about the contents.
“When we were to be married” she said, “my grandmother told me the secret of a happy marriage was never to argue. She told me that if I ever got angry with you, I should just keep quiet and knit a doll.”
The old man was overcome with emotion. He tried to fight back the tears. After all these years together, only two precious dolls were in the box. She had been angry with him only two times in all those years of living and loving. He almost burst with happiness.
“My darling,” he said, “that explains the dolls, but what about all this money? Where did that come from?”
“Oh,” she replied, “that’s the money I made selling the dolls.”
I hope this is a happy congregation. I hope it is a congregation that people are pleased to be come to because they are confident that here, they will find others with the warmth of welcome in their hearts. I hope it is a place where love dwells. But, even with that love, even with the commitment to treat each other with loving kindness and charity, there will always be times when each and every one of us will have to get out our knitting needles. Those of you who have been here a while, look around you. How many of you can honestly say, honestly say, that there is no-one you prefer to avoid at coffee hour?
That is one of the points of a properly loving religious community. Not that you love everyone, but that it is a conscious experiment in being in loving relationship even with those who make you want to start knitting. A congregation is a laboratory in which we get to practise the virtues of faithful living we would otherwise only be extolling in theory. You think forgiveness and forbearance are religious virtues? Excellent, come on in, we promise you lots of opportunities to practise them here. You like the idea of being kind and patient and assuming another’s good intentions? Perfect. We promise to test that to the max. Because, you see, here we do espouse those virtues we would like there to be more of in this wounded world, and where better to learn how to incarnate those virtues that right here, where we can not only get to talk the talk, we can learn together how to walk the walk.
Being religious is not just about being spiritual. As James Luther Adams says elsewhere in his essay, “A Faith for the free”:
Freedom requires a body as well as a spirit. We live not by spirit alone. A purely spiritual religion is a purely spurious religion; it is one that exempts its believer from surrender to the sustaining, transforming reality that demands the community of justice and love. This sham spirituality, far more than materialism, is the great enemy of religion.
But, here’s the thing. We do not come here only for our own self-improvement. As important as the health of our own spirits is, we come here for a larger purpose. We come not to serve only those already here, but to serve those who are not already here, but who might want to be. The doors must ever be as open as our hearts to the newcomer. And, we come here to learn how to serve those who will never come here, but who have their own faith or are content to say they have no faith, but who equally are part of the world we all share. And if that world out there is not a better place for our having been in here, in here in communion with each other as fellow travelers on the journey of life, and in communion with that which transcends us, which cannot be seen and which we hardly know how to talk about, but whose presence we feel and which infuses who we are and what we do; if the world out there is not a better place for our having been in here, then our being in here will have been of little purpose indeed.
Today marks the start of a new year in the life of the congregation, a year in which you hope to make the significant decision of choosing your next settled minister. You are at a cross-roads, a time of transition, and such moments can be times of both excitement and anxiety. Two different names for much the same thing.
I want you to think about a snail and a hermit crab. Something I am sure you often do anyway. The snail, like the tortoise and terrapin, takes his home with him, the carapace of permanent shelter into which it withdraws in time of danger or when in need of repose. The hermit crab enjoys no such luxury. The hermit crab makes its home in an empty shell, but as it grows and becomes too big for that shell, it must abandon it an go looking for a new home. That is the time of the greatest danger and vulnerability for the hermit crab, when it has left one home but has not yet established itself in a new one. But to stay where it was would mean the slow death of not being able to grow. It would mean not being true to its own nature.
Which is the better metaphor for this congregation – the snail or the hermit crab? Does this congregation prefer always to remain within its own protective shield of familiarity and comfort, or is it willing to risk the excitements as well as the vulnerabilities of leaving behind what has served well in the past but has become too constricting, in the faith that there is something bigger and better and more accommodating awaiting its discovery? Do we look forward with anticipation to the new dawn, or back longingly to the fading sunset behind us?
The British physician, psychologist and social reformer, born in 1859, Havelock Ellis, wrote,
The present is in every age merely the shifting point at which past and future meet, and we can have no quarrel with either. There can be no world without traditions, neither can there be any life without movement. There is never a moment when the new dawn is not breaking over the earth, and never a moment when the sunset ceases to die. It is well to greet serenely even the first glimmer of the dawn when we see it, not hastening towards it with undue speed, nor leaving the sunset without gratitude, for the dying light was once dawn.
They say that an optimist is someone who, then the preacher says, “… and finally”, believes the sermon really is about the end. Well, “… and finally”. I want to conclude with some words by Ann Tyndall, which I will adapt slightly at the end.
This morning I walked the dog up the street. It was a perfect winter’s morning. An icy breeze was blowing. Clouds were gathered in the sky. As the sun rose the grey white sky turned to rosy smoke. The sun finally appeared in the east. Nothing extraordinary, but the moment offered a blessing on the new day.
Such blessings have been given daily for more millions of years than we can ever imagine. I am reminded that what will get us through times of rapid change, hard times, times of uncertainty, dangerous times, will be our ability to be blessed and fed by abiding things:
The manifold blessings of the sun rising in the morning.
The song of a bird heard as if for the first time.
The stillness of night.
The smile of a baby offered to you as if she had been waiting for you.
The faithfulness of lovers and friends.
The hand outstretched in reconciliation,
Trembling, touching through the barriers of estrangement,
Healing again and again.
The persistence of love,
The persistence of love,
The persistence of love.
In this place, in this new time,
May we know more blessings than curses.
May our hands reach out more than clench.
May we be claimed more by love than indifference, more by hope than by fear or cynicism.
May the restive power rise up in us, grounding us and guiding us to the border of what is yet possible for us, those close to us, and the world.