Sunday, August 05, 2012

Dancing Between the Towers

This is the sermon exploration preached at the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Church - Unitarian Universalist in Charlottesville, Virginia.

If you'd like to hear the podcast, click here.

Erik Wikstrom's Exploration:
This is not the sermon I’d intended to preach this morning.  Not be a long shot.  I’d wanted to do something really clever.  Something a little bravura . . . with style and panache.  Something theatrical. 
That’s not what you’re going to get.

I’d told Wendy that after hearing Tony preach last week I really wanted to take this exploration all on my own – both, to be honest, to see if I still had it in me to do it, but also because what we’d said we were going to try to do this morning was not going to be easy.  I thought that I’d need a whole sermon length to be able to pull together what I had in mind.

We’d promised to try to show a link between three events the anniversaries of which fall this coming week.  August 6th is the 67th anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima, Japan.  August 9th is the 67th anniversary of the bombing of Nagasaki.  And in between, on August 7th, is the 38th anniversary of the day that the French wire walker Philippe Petit danced for forty-five minutes a quarter of a mile above the streets of New York City on a ¾” cable he and his accomplices had spent the better part of the night before stringing between the towers of the World Trade Center.  (I like to call this International Philippe Petit Danced Between the Towers Day, and it’s one of my . . . yes, the pun’s intended . . . High Holy Days.)
So I thought I’d create a juggling piece – I’m already all in black like Monsieur Petit.  I’d take these three dates, these three events, and . . . juggle them.  Create a pattern with them.  I’d imagined that I’d develop a lyrical, poetic exploration (in words and movement) of the folly of war and the wisdom of, well, folly; thought I’d try to dance on a tight rope myself, with the most horrific of human actions on one side and one of the most enchanting on the other.
But, as I said, that’s not what you’re going to get this morning.
I tried.  Oh, I really did try.  And it’s not just that my juggling skills aren’t quite up to it – as I often say to my kids, “if someone offers you the opportunity to fall down the basement stairs and break your arm in three places . . . say ‘no.’”  But what really got in my way is that this topic just doesn’t call out for clever.  Cute just isn’t going to cut it today.
Let me, instead, begin by sharing with you something I wrote back in 2007 when I preached about Hiroshima and Nagasaki to our congregation in Brewster, Massachusetts.  This is the way I started that sermon (those of you who like will be able to read it in its entirety on my blog tomorrow morning):
At 8:14 there was a clear blue sky.  Birds flew in the morning sunshine.  Children laughed as they made their way to school.  People were doing tai chi and calisthenics in a city park.  There’d been a scare earlier in the morning but it seemed now that everything was okay.  Even when the world around you seems to be going crazy, days like this can make you feel alive and grateful.  The air is clean; the sun, warm.  You can forget the insanity.  On a day like this.  For a moment everything makes sense.
And in that moment—31,000 feet above the birds, and the children, and the men doing tai chi—the bomb doors on the Enola Gay opened and let loose a metal cylinder.  Ten feet long and two-and-a-half feet in diameter, it would change the world.  Not just for the people below or the people in the plane, but for every man, every woman, and every child who lived or ever would.
Forty-three seconds after it was flung loose that metal cylinder was 1,900 feet above the ground and it exploded with the force of 15,000 tons of TNT.  The birds burst into flame in mid-air.  So did combustible things like paper—even as far as a mile away.  Instantly.
The people in the park right below turned to ash.  Instantly.  A woman sitting on the steps of her bank, waiting for it to open, was reduced to a shadow.  You can see it today in the Hiroshima Peace Museum where they moved the steps so that she might not be forgotten.
Next came the blast wave.  Moving at a rate of two miles a second, people were blown from their feet, buildings were blown to the ground, trolleys and cars were blown from the roads.  Glass shattered twelve miles away.  A boy was blown through the windows of his house and across the street; his house collapsing behind him.  Within minutes, nine out of ten people half a mile or less from ground zero were dead.
And the numerous fires that erupted around Hiroshima soon joined together creating a monstrous firestorm that engulfed nearly four and half square miles of the city.  In its heart it is estimated that this beast reached temperatures of over seven thousand degrees.  (For comparison, the surface of the sun is just under ten thousand degrees.)  An interesting fact:  a postwar study showed that less than 4.5 percent of survivors of the bombing of Hiroshima suffered leg fractures.  That’s not, of course, because those injuries didn’t occur but because those who couldn’t walk died.
It’s estimated that somewhere around 150,000 people died as a direct result of the blast and the fires.  150,000 people. 
And yet, as I noted back then, those are just numbers.  Joseph Stalin famously said that when one person dies it’s a tragedy; when a million people die it’s a statistic.
And then, three days later, it all happened again in Nagasaki.  Oh the more uneven, hilly terrain there contained some of the effects of the blast, the devastation was not quite as widespread, but it was as incomprehensible none the less.  When Robert Oppenheimer, lead scientist on the Manhattan Project and often known as “the father of the nuclear bomb,” saw the first test explosion back at Los Alamos he turned to the Hindu scriptures for his reaction.  “I am become Death,” he said, quoting the Bahagavad Gita, “the destroyer of worlds.”  Albert Einstein reflected that our capacity to destroy had advanced so dramatically that we now needed an equal advance in consciousness if we were going to survive.
And while neither we nor anyone else has ever again exploded a nuclear bomb in time of war, from that day ‘till this our planet has never known a period in which there was not some war going on somewhere.  I looked it up and found references to nearly 250 separate wars since 1945.  Not battles – wars.  250 wars in 67 years – that’s nearly four new wars each and every year.
Have we learned nothing?  Has that advance in consciousness that Einstein called for still not come about?  I’m afraid that we are still unconscionably good at savaging one another . . . and our planet.  And that’s why I just couldn’t find the way to be playful this morning.  When I ponder our penchant for positioning this against that and then bringing ourselves to the brink of oblivion to defend the differences . . . well . . . I just don’t really feel like juggling.
Yet maybe that’s exactly why I intuitively wanted to take the two poles of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and put a little line between them, and on that line place a crazy twenty-five year old French juggler.  A pixie.  A denizen of a magical realm where the impossible is possible and absolutely nothing is beyond our grasp.  The more outrageous, the more compelling.
At some time later today – and by Tuesday night at the latest – get yourself a copy of the movie Man on Wire.  It’s an extraordinary documentary – available on Netflix if you don’t have your own copy – and watching it has become part of my annual celebration of International Philippe Petit Danced Between the Towers Day.  I watch it over and over again, with tears in my eyes, because it reminds me that we human beings are capable of acts of profound beauty, as well as demonic devastation, and that our species’ tendency toward insanity does not just result in evil.  We can hatch plans of inspired idiocy, lyrical lunacy, and then literally put our lives on the line for them . . . and, really, just for the sake of having done it.  (When asked why he’d strung a wire a quarter of a mile above the earth Petit at first answered, “There is no why.”  The closest he ever came to explaining a reason was words to this effect:  “When I see three balls I must juggle; when I see two towers, I must walk.”)
Perhaps I am overly romantic.  Or perhaps it’s an occupational hazard left over from the old days.  But in Petit’s walk that August morning – and the way the whole world was enchanted by it – I believe I see a glimpse of that new consciousness that might just save us. 
Oh, I don’t think it’ll necessarily involve death-defying circus acts.  (Not necessarily.  Although by 2016, when the 7th will fall on a Sunday I may be up to stringing a wire in here and preaching from up there . . .)  But I do think it has something to do with seeing the world as enchanted and enchanting, and believing that beauty is something worth striving for.  And maybe it’s not so much a new consciousness as, perhaps, a renewed one – did you know that when the Chinese originally developed gun powder it wasn’t for use in weapons but, rather, for fireworks?  Oh, to have a Manhattan Project dedicated to creating fireworks.
Because there is so much to celebrate in this life.  And, perhaps, it turns out that I’ve chosen to dance on that wire after all.  I invite you to join me.
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