A sermon by Rev. Liz Lerner Maclay
Welcome and again Good Morning! It is so good to be together, especially now, especially in this autumn full of so much – joy and hope, struggle and suffering. The stories we all know and share, the stories we each carry and maybe don’t share – we bring it all here. And this house is here for it all, sturdy with centuries of tribulation and change, graced with generations of faith and commitment, here and ready as ever for each of us who walks through its storied doors, here for you. Welcome newcomer and longtime member, welcome elders and young people, welcome to this church, this space, this time that we set apart for the nurture of our hearts and minds and souls, for communion with each other and with the sacred. May we make the very most of this day we have been given, starting now, together.
Tolling of the bell
Sometimes bells ring in joy and celebration, as our bell will later this month during our installation service. Sometimes they ring in sorrow and commemoration, as our bell does this morning. We know our friends and neighbors in the Caribbean are struggling still for safety, shelter, sustenance and services. The numbers and speculation from Las Vegas continue to roll in and continue to stagger us. This is one of those times when the waves of devastation seem especially strong, with especially much to grieve, much to mourn. Mindful of these and other devastations, we toll now our bell, in sadness and solidarity.
Source of all,
This is my third attempt at a prayer.
The first two revealed to me that I am angry,
which I didn’t realize until I just couldn’t bend those prayers into what I thought they should be.
What is wrong with us, how can we be so depraved and cruel, how is it we do not learn, how can we not have become better than this, how will we ever get better than this, why is it taking so long, why must so many people suffer while we still refuse to value each other, to free each other, to lift each other?
How is it that we are so beautiful and so ugly, so blessed and so cursed?
Refugees continue to flee for their lives to nations where they know nothing and no one, not even the language; people within these nations of refuge point fingers and name the refugees as the threat, as the problem, as the illness not the symptom, as the danger and not the victims.
Undocumented people of courage and desperation come to this land of opportunity, where we reject and condemn them, and their children, where we make an industry of trials and deportation.
People who equate liberty with firearms successfully overwhelm our legislators with money and influence, and we protect their right to purchase and use advanced, devastating killing machines, even on our streets, even on our campuses. And we say fear, even ignorant, unfounded fear, and the rights of property, are always justification for the taking of a human life. People are killed, children are killed, masses of people are killed and maimed, and nothing changes.
So let me lay my anger aside, fold it carefully with my rageful hands and I will take it out later, rant and rend it later, give it to you, Source of All, if you are there to receive it, later.
But now, let us offer our grief for all those who have died in fear and horror.
Let us offer our hope for those whose lives hang in the balance now,
even as we breathe in this moment, may they recover, may they live.
Let us pray for those who have just lost someone they love, may they be held in their grief.
Let us pray for those on a boat that is tossing in an ever-colder sea today or tomorrow.
Let us pray for those crossing an ever-colder desert today or tomorrow.
We pray that they all survive, every single one, every person in peril, every child, every youth, every soul, every parent and grandparent, every soul, every desperate soul.
And may we understand that our prayers are not enough, – may our growing awareness of their courage and desperation become action, action that helps them be met with safety and warmth and respect, recognized as our own, of our own making, of our own family.
May we not pray for intervention, salvation, completion, redemption, those tired prayers that assume saving is someone else’s work, only God’s work. May we instead understand that we cannot be saved by or for anyone, or anything, but each other.
Each other is what we are given and all that will save us.
This planet is all we have and all that will save us.
Our own honor is all we have and all that will save us.
Each others’ humanity is all we have and all that will save us.
All that we are, all we will be known for, all we will be judged by, all that will intervene for us, save us, complete us, redeem us is us. Us.
There is so much that is dire these days – so much devastation and danger and stupidity and insanity – I’m not even going to offer examples because if I list everything that jumps immediately to mind, that would take the rest of our worship time. But between natural disasters and national disasters, this is a tough time, and likely to get tougher. Our legislators assure us that they are holding us – and especially those killed or devastated by the latest gun violence or hurricanes – in their prayers. I believe it’s actually their job to hold us in their legislation rather than their prayers – but that’s a topic for a different rant, I mean sermon. In the meantime, on this one week anniversary of the Las Vegas shooting, with over 500 wounded and almost 60 people killed by one man with legal high velocity weaponry, it really doesn’t matter whether we ever learn his supposed motivation or not. With so many challenges and so much devastation around us and among us, in this month when our theme already was courage and death, my thought this morning is how we get through the times when we are past praying, when we’re out of prayers, when some of us are out of hope.
Now let me acknowledge that in this space I know there are plenty of us who pray and plenty of us who don’t. This sermon is not about prayer. This is me talking about what prayer is for, what underlies prayer, about the ground of hoping and wishing and pulling for something good, in all human beings, and about what we do when that ground is pulled, or eroded, out from under our feet.
What this sermon is also about is a remote, ancient, almost unknown settlement called Karphi, and the small group of refugees, the last of their indigenous people, over 3,000 years ago, who holed up at that most remote mountaintop sanctuary. I can’t talk about Karphi, without talking also about Atlantis, the Minotaur, Theseus, the Myceneans, the Trojan War and a goddess you’ve likely never heard of, whose name is rarely pronounced, Potnia Theron. I hope you ‘ll bear with me, because I think it’s essential to talk about my point including some sweep of the cultures and history that led to it. So – stay with me while I get a little wonky now with ancient history.
Story of Atlantis:
- famed civilization of beauty and accomplishment
- first mentioned in Plato, held up as an ancient (9,000 years before Plato!)
- antagonist of Athens that was eventually defeated by Athens
- ultimately lost divine favor and sank into the sea
Many scholars think the story was inspired by the advanced Minoan culture that thrived on Crete and its satellite Santorini
- named after famous King Minos – center of many mythic stories
- Capital city – Knossos, famous multi-story, enormous palace complex
- other palaces: Phaistos, Malia and Zakros – sites of huge gatherings, ritual activities and regional administrative centers where ruling families/priests lived and worked. All palaces are oriented north to south and unfortified – their builders weren’t worried about attack, this is likely because….
- great and powerful naval power
- exacted tribute from nations around them, including ancient Athens
- story of Theseus, son of king Aegeus, who goes as part of a regular Athenian tribute to Crete to be sacrificed to the Minotaur, a half-man, half-bull who supposedly roamed an impenetrable, pitch dark labyrinth under the palace of King Minos. Theseus falls in love with King Minos’ daughter Ariadne. She helps him, giving him a ball of string for when he goes into the labyrinth. He unrolls the ball of twine until he encounters the Minotaur, kills the monster, and follows the twine back through the impenetrable darkness out of the labyrinth, ending the cycles of sacrifice to the Minotaur and Minoan rule and beginning the rise of Athens as a power in the region.
Minoan culture was dominant until a devastating, multifaceted natural disaster struck at the heart of their lands and wrought incredible destruction and death.
- sickle-shaped b/c volcano blew out the middle and most of the rest of the island,
- also massive earthquake – fault lines run right there – hard to know which came first, but likely the volcano heated up b/c no bodies found, suggests people could tell what was coming and left before the worst of it, culture left buried and intact
- caused a tidal wave that slammed into Crete ½ hour later,
- ash found as far as Denmark
Minoan culture did bounce back after that set of disasters; they had built themselves back up before and emerged stronger than ever. But this time that wouldn’t be the story. Mycenaean culture was on the rise. The Myceneans are named after their capital city, Mycenae. They are the Greeks we know about from the story of the Trojan War, which is its own long complicated story. The Mycenaeans were clever, brutal, less refined and artistic than the Minoans, a land power rather than a naval power. But once they established a foothold on Crete, which was still recovering from the earthquake/tidal wave, they were inexorable, and they slowly spread their reign over the great island until it was theirs and they ruled from the once great Minoan capital, Knossos.
The Myceneans were fascinated by the beauty and accomplishments of the Minoan culture and adopted a lot of their norms, sort of like the way the ancient Romans adopted and modified Greek gods, art, ideals, architecture, democracy and so forth. They adapted Minoan writing, Linear A, which has still never been translated to this day, and used it for their own language and records, creating Linear B, a kind of proto-ancient Greek. They took over the fabulous palace at Knossos and used it for their own headquarters. They took a lot of the art and architecture and symbols for their own, but their versions of it are heavy, simple, different and inevitably a diminishment of the original brilliant and fine Minoan art and culture.
Those Minoans who were determined to hold on to their own ways were marginalized culturally and eventually geographically. The Minoan city on Santorini was buried in the cataclysm and never re-established. On Crete, traditional Minoans were pushed from power, pushed from trade, pushed from the fertile land and gentle valleys and town centers, until they were located in the most barren and remote outlands of Crete. Though Myceneans held the good land, they were themselves assaulted in turn by a mysterious people we still can’t be sure of. Regardless of the invaders’ identity, the results for the Minoans were the same. These marauders were even more destructive than the Myceneans, and less charmed by ancient Minoan ways. The very last Minoan outpost seems to have been at Karphi, a remote crag in east central Crete which had long been a Minoan peak sanctuary, tied by architecture and a chain of sightlines to other sacred mountaintop sites that dotted their way across the steep landscape of the island. At Karphi they established a small settlement of a few hundred people and made their last stand.
In Modern Greek, Karphi means ‘big nail’ which gives you a sense for the nature of the place. Back then time moved slowly, and so these last faithful lived there in relative peace for a couple of hundred years. They lived there in peace because no one wanted their land; hardly anyone could get to it. They were living at the roof of the world, on a desolate peak where the altitude and constant wind gusts meant little grew there, both because the air blew seeds away and battered young plants, but also because the endless gales caused violent changes of temperature. (Cult Places of the Aegean, Bogdan Rutkowski, p. 74) There was a kind of beauty, sharp and fearful, there, and it was possible, if wearingly difficult, to survive. They built simple houses out of stone, and paved their few streets with stone, they established paths down the many, many miles to the nearest villages, and they of course established cemeteries. They had brought their gods, sacred statues of them, including Potnia Theron, mistress of the beasts, recognizable by the serpents that wound around her upraised arms – with them, and installed them in their new home, maintaining the old shrine with scrupulous care.
There they lived out the last waning of their way of life and their gods. For years, decades, generations, it was worth it. The hiding, the toil, the unending challenge of eking out a life there was worth it, and perhaps they were comforted by the fact that remote as their home was, it was also a sacred place, the last living link in that chain of peak shrines established in the heyday of Minoan supremacy.
We don’t know what happened to them in the end. Or, to be more specific, we don’t know why what happened, happened. Because what happened was, they left. Howsoever many of them were alive at that point, they packed up their things, and they went to their shrine, and they took their gods and carefully laid them down, buried them, in stone caskets hidden at the shrine, and then they left. They weren’t attacked – there’s no sign of burning or destruction that comes with an attack. They didn’t die of some plague; there are no unburied bodies at the site. But one day, the last of these dogged people let go, let go of hope, let go of tradition, let go of identity, let go of their connection with the sacred, and left, and left that all behind. They were out of prayers.
S. Eliot’s great poem The Hollow Men was written in 1925 after World War I and it contains this eerie, terrible, nursery rhyme refrain I’ve never been able to get out of my head ever since I learned it in high school:
“This is the way the world ends,
this is the way the world ends,
this is the way the world ends,
not with a bang but a whimper.”
I’ve lost count of the times I’ve been reminded of that poem, but Karphi is certainly another. All that, all that greatness, all that history, all that power of identity and creation, a culture so great as to be literally the stuff of legend, enduring over millennia in such a precarious time… done, one crazy, momentous day that went entirely unrecorded, perhaps even unnoticed except by those few who were part of the ending. As I’m sure is obvious, I’ve always been terribly struck by Karphi, by the place, which I have been to – it took an entire day, crawling in a little car over what was essentially a goat track – to get there. There were literally a couple wrecked cars crashed down the steep sides of the track along the way. And when we arrived it really did feel like we were at the roof of the world. The only thing above us was sky and some great birds of prey circling slowly. It always felt fitting that there are birds on the crown of some of the late Minoan goddesses as birds were some of the only animals who also belonged there with the people who saw them as part of what was sacred and included them in representations of what was sacred. So – as I said, I’ve always been struck by the place, but also struck by the archaeological record and the extraordinary and bleak story it tells.
More recently, in thinking again about Karphi, its mystery and despair, I wondered as I have many times before, is there anything that stands against Eliot’s bleak declaration as, among other things, the ultimate summing up of the story of the Minoans that ended at there? Only this time I realized, yes, there is. What stands against it is that they left. They left and went somewhere else, they let go of what was lost and started again, life went on, utterly different, utterly new, but life went on.
There are times when that is the only consolation. Even prayers may not help us, may not change what is, when there is no old hope to cling to, when the only hope is new hope and turning ourselves away from yearning towards what is real. There are a lot of attributions for the story of a great leader who once answered a question about their prayer life by saying, “I don’t have to pray. My life is a prayer.” Sometimes we don’t pray. And sometimes our life is a prayer. The people of Karphi ended their prayers and put away their gods, but arguably then – or maybe still – their lives became a prayer. They came down from the mountain and went… somewhere. Alone. Together. They took their memories, and turned their faces to a new day, and lived.
Life offers us no guarantees. Our hearts get broken. Our homes get destroyed. Our lives get devastated. Tragedy comes to us; tragedy comes to all of us sooner or later. We endure our own suffering or we suffer with others. And our task is always to heal, as best we may, and live on, live lives that aren’t what we expected, maybe aren’t what we had every right to expect, but life is worth living even when your life is the only prayer you have left.
Sometimes it’s hard to remember that. Sometimes it’s impossible to feel it, that life is worth living. Times that I am sunk in grief and loss, I remember what people live through, what people have lived through, my own ancestors, people we hear about every day, people we are reminded of in the news or in history. Karphi and its people remind me that people have been living on, have made their lives their prayer since before recorded history, and even long before that. All of us likely owe our lives to that capacity to live on. And now we are here, to take our turn in the world, to, in the words of sometime Unitarian Henry David Thoreau, “see if we cannot learn what life has to teach and not, when we come to die, discover we have not lived. We do not wish to live what is not life, living is so dear, nor do we wish to practice resignation.” He believed in “living deep and sucking out all the marrow of life.’” In Thoreau’s famous book Walden, he declares he wanted to “drive life into a corner and reduce it to its lowest terms.” His are the words of a person privileged to choose his fate. Sometimes life drives us in a corner, reduces us to the lowest terms. Exactly that is always happening to someone, somewhere, to some of us, here. Driven into a corner and reduced themselves to the lowest terms, the people of Karphi finally said, “No more,” and they left their corner and went back out into the wide world to see what life had for them. In our times of extremity, their choice cannot be forgotten. May we all, always, live lives that are alive. May we always have hope. But if ever we are without, then let us remember Karphi and let our lives be our prayer. Amen.
May you live a life that is alive. May you always have hope. But if ever you are without hope, let your life be your prayer. May it be so.