“The State of Our Union”
Covenant Baptist Church, San Antonio
September 7, 2014
Kyndall Rae Rothaus
(To listen to the audio, click “play” button above. To download audio, click here.)
This is my “State of Our Union” sermon and I can tell you it is true that I thank my God upon every remembrance of you. Covenant Baptist Church, you have been so special to me these last three years. I’m in a perpetual state of gratitude when I think of you because I feel so lucky to have found you or been found by you, whichever the case may be. That may sound a bit mushy, but I mean it.
I loved reading responses this week via email about what you are grateful for regarding this community, what words you would use to attempt to describe us. I’ve been answering the same question myself, and here is what I’ve got:
When I think about who the people of Covenant are, I think of you as the keepers of sacred space. I think of you as caretakers, as gentle stewards, as the loving arms that hold this place up and keep it what it is for all who enter. People who visit Covenant are always telling me this place feels like hallowed ground. Even the people who come in the middle of the week when no one is here, they say that when they exit off the busy road, turn into our parking lot, slow down to avoid hitting the trees that remain amidst parking slots, they sense the feeling of retreat. Our woods let them know, God is beautiful. Our quiet attention to detail lets them know they are welcome. Our prayer paths suggest God is palpable here, away from the bustle. Instead of a stage, we have a fireplace to suggest there are no performances here, only family. The circle of chairs tells you this is a place, where, for better or worse, comforting or uncomfortable, you are seen and you are known. The lack of clutter, the lack of constant noise, the lack of hurry all say this is a place where you can come out from behind your distractions and be yourself, be real, be true, even hear from God a time or two.
I think this place is what it is by the grace and mystery of God, but I think it remains what it is because you preserve it. You keep the space sacred. You cultivate its warmth, its quiet beauty, its generous spirit.
You are the keepers. Considering we don’t do just a whole lot of activity around here, you may wonder how it is that you have anything to do with the subtle splendor of Covenant. Let me tell you—you are essential. Which is less about what you do here and more about who you are. I admire you, for who you are. Your gentleness, your graciousness, your kindness—I am always smiling when I think of you.
If I had to say how it is that you are the keepers of sacred space, I would say this: You keep it sacred with your prayers, with your private walks on the property, with retreats and with songs. When you are here alone or in a pair cleaning the building or mowing the grass, you are keeping it sacred. When you de-clutter a classroom or the pantry, when you restock the bathroom with paper towels, you are keeping the space. When you change a light bulb or light the candles, you are keeping the space. When you greet your neighbor or hug a child, you are keeping space. When you refrain from judgment, you are keeping the space. When you stay open to change, open to new people, and open to God’s mystery, that is keeping the space. When you refuse to take control and let this place be God’s, you are keeping the space. When you potluck and when you party, you are keeping the space. When you laugh and when you cry here, you are keeping the space. Just look around the room at the people who surround you, and you will know that what I say is true: it is you who make Covenant, Covenant.
Megan remarked to me that Covenant is like Treebeard from Lord of the Rings, and that was so spot on I cracked up laughing. Do you know Treebeard, Shepherd of the Ents and forests of Middle Earth? If you need a refresher from Tolkien’s The Two Towers, a great and terrible war between good and evil is brewing, but that doesn’t rush Treebeard, the greatest and oldest of all the Ents. He always s p e a k s v e r y s l o w l y . . . and his motto is, “Do not be hasty.”
He’s a great big beautiful tree, so slow-moving and slow-talking, you could almost fall asleep listening. But this slow pace is key to Treebeard’s wisdom. He never decides anything quickly. He is never rash. He does not meddle in affairs that are not his own nor concern himself with battles outside his realm. You may mistake him for being inactive and uncaring, but that is not true. He is graciously hospitable to visitors. He is also a grand and powerful protector and when the sacred space he guards is threatened, he rises with a roar and brings the whole forest alive in defense against the powers of evil that seek to do violence against his family. It is said many of the stationary trees are Ents who have fallen asleep, and their spirits wake up when the right motivation strikes, and awake they do. It is hard to provoke an Ent, but that does not mean they are unmovable. Treebeard and his Ents act when action is called for. He does not, however, waste exertion on very many things. He isn’t one to worry or stir up trouble or allow for unnecessary drama. He is patient and purposeful. He is good and he is kind. He is not invasive.
See what I mean? Covenant is Treebeard.
At the outset of 2014, I wrote a list of ways I wanted to greet the new year, and among my promises to myself, I included this: “I will not insert myself where I do not belong, nor carry anxieties that do not bear my name, nor worry about that which I am not responsible for fixing. I will find where I belong, I will carry what is given to me, and I will be a faithful steward of the tiny portion of redemptive action I hold in my own two hands.”
Part of being a good keeper is knowing what it is yours to keep, and not grasping at anything that isn’t yours. Sometimes good stewards appear to be doing very little because they do not busy themselves with property and politics that do not concern them. But when a need arises, the keepers rise up with wisdom, clarity, and action. Though they can appear sleepy, they may just be more awake than most.
There are many things that let me know Covenant is awake, even when she seems groggy. I know you too can remember events in the last year when this community rose up in response. Your unfailing generosity, your gentle spirit, your genuine respect for others, your calm acceptance . . . these things say to me that you are alert. Alert to life, alert to your neighbor, alert to God.
In particular, I am thinking of your hospitality, which is not only a value of the Ents and a value of the ancient Christians, it is a value here too. Henri Nouwen says, “Hospitality is the ability to pay attention to the guest.” He says hospitality “requires first of all that the host feel at home in his own house, and secondly that he create a free and fearless place for the unexpected visitor.”
Here’s the thing, Nouwen says true hospitality requires withdrawing something of ourselves to make room for the other. I sort of think of this as our Covenant specialty. There is a lot of wide open space around here—physically and metaphorically, there is space for a person to be, to heal, to rest, to find acceptance. No one personality dominates the space; no agenda drives the room; no set of expectations contort any souls; no excess amount of manmade stimuli crowds out the sights and sounds of nature. This freedom can actually be a bit emotional or disconcerting when you first arrive here. The absence of busy, the casual intimacy, the lack of demands—all this is unusual and some folks understandably feel the urge to run and hide, but many people who stick around find out this open space was just what they needed. Nouwen writes that true hospitality “asks for the creation of an empty space where the guest can find his own soul.” Once you’ve experienced the hospitality yourself, you’re ready to pass it on to others. Nowen says, “When we have found the anchor places for our lives in our center, we can be free to let others enter into the space created for them and allow them to dance their own dance, sing their own song and speak their own language without fear. Then our own presence is no longer threatening and demanding but inviting and liberating . . .”
In The Two Towers, Pippin describes meeting Treebeard: “I don’t know but it felt as if something that grew in the ground — asleep, you might say . . . had suddenly waked up, and was considering you with the same slow care that it had given to its own inside affairs for endless years.”
My beloved Covenant, may we continue to move through this world slowly, deliberately, patiently, and kindly. When we are called upon to act, may we act with courage, with purpose, with strength, and with wisdom. May we be very hard to provoke to anger, but when necessary, may we be an unstoppable force. In our quiet, modest way of being, may we be a home for the weary wanderer, always creating and maintaining open space for God’s children to be seen and heard and known and valued. May we pay attention to our souls and to our guests with equal patience. May it be God’s own generosity that fills this place with warmth and safety, and may such generosity spill over into our daily lives. May we take a bit of the Covenant spirit with us, wherever we go and wherever we love and wherever we serve and wherever we called on to make decisions. In gratitude for the sacred we found here, as long as we are able, may you and I keep the space. Amen.