Sermon Preached June 19, 2022

The Reverend David W. Good, Minister Emeritus

First Congregational Church of Old Lyme, CT

 

A GAME OF CROQUET: IN HONOR OF OUR FATHERS

 

“ALL EXPERIENCE IS AN ARCH WHERETHROUGH GLEAMS THAT UNTRAVELLED WORLD”

 

            Good morning!  It’s wonderful to be back with you once again here in the beauty of the Pequot Chapel.  Thank you for the invitation to offer today’s sermon, and I’d like to offer a special word of gratitude to Andrew Walker and Lisa McGinley for their gracious leadership and hospitality on behalf of the chapel.  Thank you Lisa and Andrew!  You serve as a great example for us all!

 

            Each year, for I don’t remember how many years, I’ve had the honor preaching here on Father’s Day.  This year, with your blessing, I’d like to share a little about my own father, the wisdom I learned or tried to learn from him -- perhaps the passive voice is even more appropriate: the wisdom I’m still trying to learn from him, but also the challenges we sometimes faced in our father-son relationship, which I’m sure were not all that atypical.

 

            My father served in both World War II and the Korean War, and I grew up in the 60’s during the Viet Nam War and the Civil Rights movement, and without going into the details, as you might imagine, my father and I sometimes had radically different perspectives, and neither of us were shy about voicing our opinions about religion or politics.

 

            Sometimes in our arguments, I was reminded of a song by Bob Dylan:

 

I’m right from my side, and you’re right from yours.  We’re both just one too many mornings and a thousand miles from home.

 

            I’m guessing that very few of us grew up in a Norman Rockwell kind of family – not even Norman Rockwell himself, if truth be known!   We’re all sometimes “a thousand miles from home” or at least the idealized version of what a home or a family should be. 

 

So, as I share a bit about my father, I hope this will allow you the opportunity for your own reflections, the good and maybe the not so good.

 

            I also want to be sensitive to those who maybe never knew their fathers, or, if they did, struggled mightily in that relationship, and so maybe for you, it might be better not to reflect on your biological father but rather a teacher, a coach, a neighbor, a friend of the family, someone who served as a fatherly figure for you.

 

            Actually, you may be interested to know that my father has some roots here in New London.   While he lived in Indiana and then Arizona and while he visited us in Connecticut on a number of occasions, he was never here long enough to think of this as his home.

 

Nevertheless, I know he would be proud to know that when I retired from the Old Lyme Congregational Church, working together with Cathy Zall and the Homeless Hospitality Center here in New London, our church raised over $70,000 and provided volunteers to help renovate what would come to be known as the Major Edward A. Good Veteran’s Home at 19-21 Steward St. here in New London, up near Shaw’s Cove,  not more than a stone’s throw, about 2 miles from here.

 

            So, I’m proud to think of my father as something of an honoraria member of this community, and in my prayers of thanksgiving, I give thanks knowing that veterans can now find much needed shelter in a home that bears his name.

 

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            Now, coming into church this morning, I’m sure you couldn’t help but see the rather rickety croquet items sitting out by the sign.

 

            This chapel is known for its exquisite architectural beauty and magnificent stained glass windows. So, it may seem a bit of a sacrilege to have a croquet set on your front lawn, and when I made this request to place it as something of a symbol for today’s sermon, I was very grateful to receive Andrew’s gracious approval.  Thank you Andrew!

 

            The French philosopher Paul Ricouer once said, “The symbol gives rise to thought”, and in addition to more traditional ecclesiastical symbols – the cross, the stained glass windows, the vaulted ceiling of this chapel’s architecture, there are any number of other things – lesser things --  that could serve as symbols for us, things that with a little imagination could lead us to ponder the boundary waters between the temporal and the eternal, the sacred and the profane.

 

            I confess this to be one of my many contradictions.  While being an iconoclast; I find myself always in search of icons, things that “give rise to thought”, things, ordinary things that serve as extraordinary reminders or reassurance that we are not alone, that we are surrounded by God’s love and truth, “if only we had eyes to see and ears to hear”, as Jesus said.

 

            Afterall, it was Shakespeare himself who said:

 

                        And this our life, exempt from public haunt

Finds tongues in trees, books in the running    brooks,

Sermons in stones, and good in everything.

I would not change it.  (from “As You Like It”)

 

            So, today, I would have you ponder A GAME OF CROQUET: IN HONOR OF OUR FATHERS.

 

Actually, this rickety croquet set with rusty wickets that I brought with me this morning belonged to my parents. 

 

On one of their trips to Connecticut, I think they cleared out their basement and garage and brought this croquet set along with a bunch of other stuff, which by the way was cause to bring to the surface some of our contentious father-son dynamics.  While he wanted me to have this croquet set, for whatever reason, he decided to burn all my old beloved baseball cards, which included Mickey Mantle, Yogi Berra, Whitey Ford, Minnie Minoso, Luis Aparicio, Warren Spahn, Lou Burdette, Ernie Banks, and a host of others that I’m sure were worth a fortune! 

 

So it sometimes goes in our father/son relationships!

 

Be that as it may, I’m grateful for this croquet set for it reminds me of many happy occasions in our back yard.

 

After serving in World War II and then the Korean War, my father came back to Indianapolis where he and my mother were very active in the Central Avenue Methodist Church in downtown Indianapolis.  My father taught Sunday School every single Sunday for years, and periodically, he would invite Sunday School families to come to our home for church picnics where invariably there would be a game of croquet, even late into the night.

 

Now, let me tell you, this may look like a wicket, but in the imagination of a 10 or 12 year old boy, this is no more of a wicket than a wardrobe was just a wardrobe for a young girl by the name of Lucy, no more of a wicket than a looking glass was just a looking glass for Alice.

 

No, this wicket was the Arc de Triom’phe, the Marble Arch made famous years later by Leonard Cohen’s haunting and esoteric song, “Hallelujah”, the magnificent red stone natural arch, the “The Delicate Arch” out in Utah, the St. Louis Arch commemorating the explorations of Lewis and Clark led by 16-year old Sacajawea, and by the way, in my opinion we should never mention Lewis and Clark without also giving honor to Sacajawea.

 

Also, sometime in early high school English class, I fell in love with Alfred Lord Tennyson’s poem, “Ulysses” that Lisa read so beautifully this morning.

 

            I cannot rest from travel….

            I am a part of all that I have met;

Yet all experience is an arch – an arch – wherethro’ gleams that untravell’d world…

How dull it is to pause, to make an end,

To rust unburnish’d, not to shine in use!

 

                        And then the poet goes on to say, “Come my friends, tis not too late to seek a newer world.”

 

            “The symbol gives rise to thought.”  Even in the eyes,  even in the imagination of an iconoclast, ordinary things can become extraordinary,  They can take us down a rabbit hole or they can lead on a journey to explore what Soren Kierkegaard called, “The stages along life’s way”, the wickets or the arches we have to pass through in order to become more nearly the children of God we were created to me.

 

            Like John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, a game of croquet can lead us into a deeper understanding of ourselves, and just as Bunyan reminded us of the “Slough of Despond” through which we all sometimes find ourselves, so also, which one of us doesn’t remember being “sent” into the weeds and thorns in a game of croquet?

 

            By the way, when this happened to any of us, one of us would sing Sam Cooke’s song, “You Send Me” which was popular at the time.

 

            One of the things I love about croquet is that it’s repetitious and circular in nature.  One game can lead to another and another with the goal being to find one’s way through all the wickets, the ever elusive “Perfect” game, if you will.

 

            In his theology, John Wesley – the father of the Methodist church – talked about “going on to perfection”, the idea that through repetition and practice, we can, little by little, become the children of God we were created to be.  Thus, methodical became Methodist. Not that we can ever achieve perfection, but through practice, we can become better human beings today than what we were yesterday.  “Tis not too late to seek a newer world.”  And neither is it ever too late to become better human beings, more worthy of our true identities. 

 

As Irenaeus, one of the ancient church fathers, said, “The Glory of God is a person fully alive.”

 

            So, that’s what I see when I look out and see all those wickets.  Those aren’t just wickets; they are arches; they’re arches that we have to pass through on the way to “perfection.”

 

            I like to think of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount as something of a series of wickets or arches that one should pass through, sort of a spiritual game of croquet, if you will.

 

            The Sermon on the Mount is something of a compendium of Jesus’ wisdom – “the best of Jesus” – if you will.

 

            In his Sunday School classes, my father loved to teach the Sermon on the Mount, and so I suppose it’s only natural that in my memory, the game of croquet became comingled with Jesus’ teachings that we find in today’s scripture, each verse being like a wicket that one has to go through on the long road to “perfection.”

 

            Take for example the verse,

 

You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hid.  Nor do men light a lamp and put it under a bushel, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house.  Let your light so shine before others, that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.

 

            Pretty words but also challenging words.  Most of us, at least some of the time, would prefer to hear Jesus say, “I am the light of the world”, which he did say from time to time, but here, in the “best of Jesus”, the Sermon on the Mount, he’s saying something quite different.   Most of us, if not many of us would prefer that more passive version, to think of Jesus as being the one and only light of this world, which psychologically, let’s us off the hook.

 

            But if you want to be on the right track in this Game of Croquet, the first step is to recognize your own agency, your own responsibility.  Are too many of God’s children being slaughtered by gun violence?   Well, “you are the light of this world.”  Are too many of God’s children deprived of their basic human rights – food, clothing and shelter – “you are the light of this world.”  Is New London, Old Lyme, Waterford, East Lyme all already a “City Set Upon Hill”, places where bigotry, racism and xenophobia have finally been overcome?   Probably not, and if not, are we going to go to church and simply give thanks for one who promised to be the light of this world? In the “best of Jesus”, the wisdom says, no, “you are the light of this world.

 

            That’s one of the things I love so much about Amanda Gorman’s poem, “The Hill We Climb”:

 

                        So let us leave behind a country better

                        Than the one we were left.

With every breath from our bronze-pounded chests,

 

We will raise this wounded world into a wondrous one… For there is always light,

            If only we’re brave enough to see it,

            If only we’re brave enough to be it.

 

            No passing of the buck here, no waiting for Godot, no trust in a Deus ex Machina, but rather, I am the light of this world.

 

            “My name is John Henry, and I have a hammer in my hand”

 

            So, that then is the first wicket we have to pass through, and to start the game, as you know, there’s always a double wicket.  So, the second is similar.

 

            In his Sunday School classes, my father required us to memorize the Beatitudes, the first 11 or 12 verses from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount.

 

            One of the things that always bothered me about the beatitudes was their apparent passivity.  Blessed are those who are doing poorly now, for someday, somehow, maybe in the sweet bye and bye, things will get better.   I always suspected that human psychology messed around with Jesus’ theology in creating that illusion of passivity.  But this wasn’t confirmed until years later when I learned something quite important from Elias Chacour, the former archbishop of the Melkite Christian Church.

 

            Chacour, knowledgeable about the Aramaic language, the language that Jesus used, translated the beatitudes so they would sound more akin to the original Aramaic.

 

            Take for example the beatitude, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the sons and daughters of God.”  That’s ok, but, I think I prefer Chacour’s translation from the Aramaic:

 

            “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will get up and do something about it!”

 

            I like the positive can-do energy in that beatitude.  That’s a beatitude with an attitude!

 

 I’m not going to sit around waiting and watching for something to happen.  If we’re tired of enmity and incivility in the public square, I’m going to get up and do something about it!

 

            Think of how such a beatitude with an attitude could revolutionize our faith communities.  Preachers would be more like King Harry on St. Crispin’s Day, “I see you stand like greyhounds in the slips….”  Even the oldest and most vulnerable among us would be like Ulysses,

 

                        Death closes all: but something ere the end,

                        Some work of noble note, may yet be done,

                        Not unbecoming men that strove with Gods.

                        The lights begin to twinkle from the rocks;

                        The long day wanes: the slow moon climbs: the

                        Deep Moans round with many voices.  Come, my friends,

‘T’ is not too late to seek a newer world.

 

            That’s the kind of heroic quixotic spirit so necessary for this troubled time in which we live.  That’s not a wicket; that’s nothing less than the Arc de Triom’phe through which we all must pass.

 

            There are a lot of other wickets in the Sermon on the mount, and at your leisure, I’ll let you explore them on your own.

 

            But we now need another wicket, one to provide something of a counterbalance to that previous wicket, a governor or check-valve to make sure the church militant doesn’t become the church belligerent.

 

            In his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus sets up an almost impossible number wickets for us to navigate, and this one, at least for me and my body chemistry, is one of the most challenging of them all.

 

            Jesus said – and you know he said these words –

 

You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy”. But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.

 

            For some of us, that’s almost a “wicket too far.”  “Love your enemies.”  Why did Jesus have to say that!

 

At my father’s insistence, I delivered the Indianapolis Star, my very first job, when I was about 12 years old. All delivery boys would ride their bicycles to the newspaper shack at 4 o’clock in the morning.  We were supposed to complete our routes by 5 or 5:30 at the latest.  The problem was that every single morning was like a war zone for me.  I probably got into more fights before 5 o’clock in the morning than most have in a lifetime.  

 

We didn’t fight over anything very meaningful, I’m ashamed to say.  Nothing idealistic, no noble cause at play. It’s just that I lived on one side of Arlington Avenue, and the others lived on the other.   And, that was enough, that was enough to make us enemies.  

 

Whatever else this taught me, it taught me how silly are the boundaries we sometime draw, the “Arlington Avenues”, the Mason Dixon lines in our human relationships, the Maginot lines in our not so civil Civil Body Politic.   Nationalism, tribalism, we seem to have an almost uncanny ability to divide the world, “us and them”.

 

So, after all of these bitter battles at “dawn’s early light” the last thing I wanted to hear was my father’s Sunday school lesson, reminding us of how Jesus said so unequivocally,

 

“Love your Enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” 

 

Years later I learned how St. Augustine said, “Imagine the arrogance of thinking your enemy can do you more harm than your enmity.”

 

I don’t think my father ever knew about those early morning fights, but even as painful as it sometimes was, I was grateful for the lessons I learned, how easy it is to divide this precious world in which we live, how easy it is to allow artificial boundaries to divide our human family, how easy it is to retaliate, allowing enmity to take root in our souls.

 

This spiritual game of Croquet – “going on to perfection” – is not easy; it’s an incredibly challenging course, but the good thing is, as T.S. Eliot said, “We are only undefeated because we have gone on trying.”

 

Someday, I’ll make it through that wicket, and what a triumph that will be!  But believe me, I’ve got a lot of work yet to do!

 

Which brings me to the final wicket for this morning.

 

In his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said:

 

“Enter by the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the way is easy, that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many.  For the gate is narrow and the way is hard, that leads to life, and those who find it are few.”

 

            In playing croquet, I’m sure we’ve all had the experience where the wicket – far from being the Marble Arch or the Arch of St. Louis – looks so tiny from a distance.  We squint and then we hit the ball too hard, and it goes flying past the wicket, and so we then have to go back and try again and again.

 

            In this verse, I think Jesus is saying something quite important about what we need to do to get through that final wicket.

 

            Rather than be overly didactic in my explanation, I think I’ll close with an image and then a story.  First the image. 

 

            In Doc Martin, the popular British comedy, the name of the village is Portwenn in the beautiful county of Cornwall, a magnificent county in the Southwest of England with cliffs that drop some 200 feet straight down into the ocean.

 

            Portwenn is the television name for Port Issac, and having hiked all over Cornwall, I know that Port Issac has a tiny passage way called “Squeezeabelly Street”, which they claim is the narrowest road in all of England.  And true enough, you almost have to inhale and turn sideways, if you want to get to the other side.

 

            So, it is in this spiritual croquet game.  While we might wish that the wickets be nice and wide, maybe the most important one is the one that requires us to inhale and turn sideways.  Some will have to try and try again and again, not because of the size of their bodies but rather because of the size of their egos. 

 

            For some time now, I no longer spell sin “S-I-N”.  I now spell it E-G-O.

 

            If we’re “going on to perfection” as John Wesley said; how many of us have been thwarted because our egos are just too big for Squeezabelly Street?

 

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            Please allow me to close with a story from the Sufi tradition.

 

            A very proud and successful man died and went to the Gates of Heaven.  When he knocked, he heard a voice that said, “Who is there?”  To which the proud man said, “you know me, I’m known and respected by all.

 

            But the voice says, “No. Go away, for you are not ready to enter the Gates of Heaven.  Go back and live some more.  Spend time with the poor and the humble.  Go back and suffer with those who suffer; practice compassion; practice generosity.  Use your position in society, your power and influence to do away with injustice.

 

             And so, this he did.  He accomplished a lot in a short period of time, and so, when he died, he knocked on the Gates of Heaven, and when he heard a voice saying,
“Who is it?”, he said, “You know who it is,” and he then proceeded to offer a long resume of all the good things he had done.

 

            “No, I’m sorry, but you’re not yet worthy of these Gates of Heaven.’’

 

            “Go back and listen to the Wisdom of your fathers and mothers.  Spend time with the great wisdom keepers of all the great spiritual traditions, and above all, practice humility.”

 

            So, he went back to the land of living, and he did all the wonderfully kind and generous things he had done before, but now, he found great joy in dropping such words as “I” and “me” and “mine” from his vocabulary.  He found great joy in philanthropy, but now, he gave anonymously and was always looking for ways to empower others, and when praise came his way, he would say, “no, to God be the glory.”

 

            So, at the end of his days, once more he came to that final wicket, the gates of Heaven, and when he heard that voice saying, “Who is there?”, in humility, he knelt down, and in a prayer of thanksgiving, he said, “Thou Lord Thou” and straightway, the Gates of Heaven were opened.  Amen

 

 

The Rev. David W. Good

Minister Emeritus, The First Congregational Church of Old Lyme