Sermon by Don Barker
Opening words are from New Testament of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, the book entitled The Acts of the Apostles:
And it shall come to pass in the last days, saith God, I will pour out of my Spirit upon all flesh: and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams …
And I will shew wonders in heaven above, and signs in the earth beneath; blood, and fire, and vapour of smoke:
The sun shall be turned into darkness, and the moon into blood, before that great and notable day of the Lord come:
And it shall come to pass, that whosoever shall call on the name of the Lord shall be saved.
I want to tell you a story. The title of my story is, “What Happened to Me at the Eclipse.”
My story is not just a travelogue. It’s about a trip that touched my religion. “Just what religion?” you might ask. “That’s hard to pin down for a lot of us UUs.”
So I’ll go by this definition: My religion is those thoughts and acts which engage my deepest, core relationship to the totality of my life and the meaning of Life. One theologian called this my Ultimate Concern. And your Ultimate Concern. (Stephen Batchelor, After Buddhism, quoting Paul Tillich).
So, what happened to me? Well, it’s just what I told the kids a few minutes ago during our Stories for All Ages. I drove west for two days along old US 50, over the Alleghenies and across the Illinois prairie to a horse farm in the heart of Missouri. I met up with our son, Nathan, and his wife, Kate, and their friends. Christians, Pagans, Atheists, and Scientists gathered near the horse pasture. The sun disappeared, but it came back. It was indescribably beautiful, and there were hugs all around. Then we all drove home.
So, why tell this story? Because I experienced the eclipse – Totality – with others whose Ultimate Concern is not quite the same as mine. On the long drive back, I thought especially of the fundamentalist, adventist Christians with whom I engaged along the way. Why single out Christians? Because I used to be one. And I wondered why they still are when I no longer am. Ironically, my trip west to Totality reconnected me with my own Christian roots and helped me appreciate them more deeply.
On the drive back east, back toward home, I thought about how I think and talk about my Christian roots, and how my thinking and talking makes Christians feel when they’re in my presence, or when they visit us here at UUFE. I’ll tell this story through my trip photos.
So, let’s hit the road. It’s two days to Totality, and the whole country is counting down. I packed my old truck with camping gear, lawn chairs, and a cooler and headed west – all the way on old US 50.
Out here in front of our church building, US 50 is four lanes and divided highway. But this same US 50 west of the DC merges down to two lanes. And it’s like that – a small country road – for 800 miles, all the way to St. Louis. I drove most of the way at 45 mph and seldom saw a tailgater in the rearview.
The drive along old US 50 amazed me right from the start. And I had an idea. I stopped and set up my cellphone caddy so I could snap photos from the dashboard. Left turns, right arrows, steep grade ahead, hairpins, mountains summits, valley farms.
I pulled off at a scenic overlook and texted one of these dashboard photos to Rita. A reply came right back: “omg. ur not taking selfies while u drive, r u?” No! This is as safe as pushing buttons on the car radio. But I decided to stop the dashboard pics, anyway, and just look and appreciate, both hands on the wheel.
It struck me deeply how different US 50 is out there. And how different America is. For most of the way, US 50 no longer runs between any two places that amount to much. Those places – crossroads and towns, small churches, and mountain cabins, have been bypassed by Interstates that cross the mountains to the north and south.
Just before I turned off the dashboard camera, I got pics of a few of these mountain cabins. I saw so many of these packed tight against the shoulder of the highway. And there was a small white church, also close to the road, every five miles or so. I kept these photos, because I used to live in a mountain cabin like these and attend a small Christian church every Sunday.
That was in a different, dark mountain range in California, out near the western end of US 50. I supposed now that my cabin life back then was something like that of a young person in these cabins I was passing. We heated with coal. The cabin was not insulated. I gathered kindling for the fire each evening from the surrounding woods before I did my homework. My siblings and I lived in the cabin with my mother and her boyfriend.
I was only in middle school, so I didn’t know clinical words for how I felt about my life and my future. But I understand now. It was vulnerability and uncertainty, confusion and fear about who I was and what I would become. There lay my Ultimate Concern at age 12.
My refuge and source of strength during these dark years turned out to be a small brick church like the dozens I passed along this road through the Alleghenies. My father would come and get us on weekends and take us to church. That Christian church was a lifeline for me. A little later, the public school also was.
I thought a lot about those small white churches while I camped that night in the mountains. I had a pretty good idea what the Christians who gathered there taught and sang about their Ultimate Concern. And I wondered if any of them would be driving west along with me to Totality next morning.
On day two, I drove down out of the mountains and into Ohio’s Pepperidge Farm country. Ohio was beautiful. I had been driving an hour when I looked to my left and saw an odd mound about 30 feet tall and 200 feet long. I knew about these pre-Columbian mounds built by ancient American people, but I had never seen one up close. I checked my watch – nine hours to Totality. I had time, so I stopped at the small park and read the info panels.
It said this was Seip Mound. And this sculpture taken from Seip Mound is “a rare opportunity to see the Ohio Hopewell people through their own eyes.” I walked up the trail to the mound and stood awhile, trying to hear the voice of this Hopewell Person whose sculptured face I beheld.
The voice I heard instead was from a conversation I had a few weeks earlier with a work colleague. He believes that Seip Mound, and hundreds of others like it throughout the Mississippi and Ohio Valleys, were built by the Lost Tribes of Israel. And that God destroyed most of them with earthquakes and fire three days before the Resurrected Jesus visited the survivors. And that another mound in upstate New York, called the Hill Cumorah, is where the angel Moroni (who stands atop the Mormon temple you see on the Outer Loop of the DC Beltway) hid the gold plates that became the Book of Mormon, where you can read more about The Hopewell People who were really the Lost Tribes of Israel. My colleague and I both graduated from Brigham Young University. So that means I used to believe this, too.
The story of Hill Cumorah, the angel Moroni, and the Lost Tribes building things in Ohio seems silly to me now. But it’s not silly to some people I care deeply about. So I texted my colleague and sent my geolocation and some photos of Seip Mound. He texted right back and said, “Be sure to check my web site about the Cahokia Mound Complex just outside of St. Louis. You’re heading that way, right? Out there for the Eclipse?” Yes, I think I still was.
But it wasn’t just my work colleague. My daughter, Amanda, also believes the stories of the Lost Tribes and gold plates. So I texted the photos to her, too, hoping she would see in the face and eyes of the Hopewell Man the same thing that I saw, and hear his true voice. A strange, distant human whom we’ll never fully understand. But who also held an Ultimate Concern deep in his heart.
I hit the road again and reached the outskirts of St. Louis with three hours to go before Totality. All freeway for the next 20 miles.
Freeways in Missouri seem to be a religious and political battleground, with religion and politics often mixed together in the same billboard. Anti-abortion, anti-union, anti-minimum wage, anti-evolution, each with a Bible verse to prove it’s what God wants. And constant reminders that the End is Near. I hoped so. My gas pedal leg was stiff, and my butt hurt.
Then came more signs that Totality and The End were near – traffic signs that the highway department put up:
Eclipse Today, Expect Delays
Eclipse Today, Use Headlights
Eclipse Today, No Stopping in Roadway
Eclipse Today, Do Not Take Photos While Driving!
And then another sure sign: The Christians were out in droves with their eclipse glasses and solar telescopes. At the exit where I turned off the freeway onto the country road to the horse farm, the church parking lot was full of cars and trucks and some telescopes. Three miles farther down the road was another church lot full of people wearing eclipse glasses. And then another. A mile from the horse farm was a corner lot with a big oak tree where a pickup was parked in the shade. The driver had gotten out and was pulling lawn chairs out of the back of the truck. Stepping out the passenger side was an Amish woman, come to look God straight in the eye, I imagined.
Finally, I turned into the horse farm. I found Nate and Kate there and met their friends who owned the farm. I grabbed a craft IPA from the cooler and talked to some of the Christians, Pagans, Atheists, and Scientists who had come to witness Totality. I wondered, had they also come to face their Ultimate Concern?
I don’t know for sure. I only know that some gazed in wonder at the Mystery. Some did the science. Some seemed to argue about what it meant. And some watched out for the rest of us, keeping an eye on what is close, making sure the kids are okay.
At the same time, I was in touch real-time with My Favorite Christians – Amanda and her family. While I was at the horse farm counting down the minutes, she was live-streaming eclipse photos from back home in Delaware.
The sky darkened. We listened to the cicadas quiet down. And we watched the horses in the meadow. (They were clearly uninterested.) When the last pinpoint of light blinked off, I took off the eclipse glasses and looked back up. It simply took my breath away. The silver feathers of the corona were indescribable. Nathan squeezed my shoulder, and I held him. I could not turn away from the sight or utter a word. Neither could any of the thrity Christians, Pagans, Atheists, and Scientists in the meadow. Complete, awe-struck silence. Until a tiny flash of sunlight forced us all to look away.
Sorry. I don’t have actual eclipse photos. All I have is this photo I took of Venus near the sun. Venus became visible as the sky darkened before Totality.
And this NASA photo that Amanda the Christian amateur astronomer and mother of four shared later on Facebook. NASA says it was taken at Jefferson City, MO. That was just 30 miles south of us.
(Amanda also texted me two nights ago, after I was in bed and almost asleep. She always knows about the next big thing in space exploration. Before the eclipse, it was another NASA launch from Wallops Island near her. Now she was sending to me and her brother Nathan, the Atheist amateur astronomer, a link for live video next morning of the Cassini probe ending its 16-year mission and plunging into the heart of Saturn.)
So, what happened to me at the eclipse? I saw something very beautiful and felt love for all around. I would call that a religious experience, because it somehow touched the Ultimate Concern of everyone in the horse pasture. And the Ultimate Concern of thousands of others across the country who saw it.
I decided to take the freeway for the long drive back – 13 hours on I-70 to Baltimore – a straight shot. But watch out here – I’m going to make a sharp right turn. I hope you can stick with me.
Because on the drive back, I started wondering: How did we each travel such different paths to Totality? How could we feel the same about it — but think and believe so differently about many things, before and after? How can my colleague who works with me every day on satellite imagery, GPS, geodetic survey and precise geopositioning, and geographic science, still believe that the Lost Tribes built those mounds, and the earth opened up and swallowed most of their cities, despite all archaeological and geologic evidence to the contrary?
How can my daughter track the Cassini spacecraft and all the NASA missions and still believe in those gold plates and angels?
And while we’re at it, how can the Christians who paid for those billboards believe all that stuff? What’s wrong with these people?
A few more miles down the road, I realized that the real question was: Why am I feeling this way?
Why do I laugh when one of our RE kids visits a Christian church and says that “all they talk about is Jesus”? Well of course, all they talk about is Jesus. Why don’t I take time to explore the Ultimate Concern behind all their talk about Jesus? Why do I avoid using the “J” word or the “G” word here at our liberal religious fellowship – and smile knowingly when I do?
I don’t know how it is for you, but I think I’ve been clinging to a sort of post-Christian elitism. This is a lot harder to see than gender bias or racism. And here’s why: It’s easy for me to feel that I am who I am because of the right choices I made. And that others are who they are because of the wrong choices they made. And we each came to a fork in the road, and because of some intrinsic goodness, or inborn wisdom or intelligence or coolness in me, I went down the right road, and they went down the wrong road.
But that’s not how it is at all. The forks we encounter are not the same forks in the same road. The truth is, we are all traveling different roads.
It was those mountain cabins that helped me step outside of my post-Christian elitism and see this more clearly. I saw those cabins and realized: My god, I could still be there – so easily.
I mentioned that my father had taken us kids to church on Sundays, and what a lifeline that was for me. But there’s more to that story. My father had stopped going to church years before. My parents almost never took us when we were younger. A few years after their divorce, my father got custody of us only because my mother had a serious auto accident and could no longer care for us. My father started taking us to church only because he married a Catholic, and she needed to break from her own religious roots, and so she looked into my father’s religious tradition. My beloved stepmother also had completed two years of college and had a very different attitude than my father about education. She was an inspiration for me to develop an intellectual life along with a spiritual life.
And that is why I’m here, and not somewhere else.
It’s a twisting, turning, up-and-down road to Totality and back. Have I lost you?
The fact is, I am here at this fellowship with you today, simply because of a string of unlikely events along a path that was totally beyond my control. And I need to remember this when I think and speak about others who are on different paths and in different places.
May it be so.
Closing Words are from The Book of Mormon, Another Testament of Jesus Christ, The Book of Third Nephi, the Son of Nephi, Who Was the Son of Helaman, chapters 8 and 9:
Behold, there was darkness upon the face of the land …. insomuch that the inhabitants … could feel the vapor of darkness …
It did last for the space of three days that there was no light seen … yea, great were the groanings of the people, because of the darkness and the great destruction which had come upon them.
And there was a voice heard … upon all the face of this land, [saying] … Behold, I am Jesus Christ the Son of God. … I am the light and the life of the world. I am Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end.
And ye shall offer up unto me no more the shedding of blood; yea, your sacrifices and your burnt offerings shall be done away, … And ye shall offer for a sacrifice unto me a broken heart and a contrite spirit. … Therefore, whoso repenteth and cometh unto me as a little child, him will I receive, for of such is the kingdom of God.