A Place to Stand
Two and a half centuries before Christ was born, one of the greatest minds of that or any other time was discovering all sorts of principles that are still basic to modern science. Born in a Greek colony in Sicily, this man, whose name was Archimedes, invented a device to raise water that was used for centuries in the Egypt’s Nile Valley, he discovered the law of specific gravity, as a mathematical genius he came very close to inventing calculus, he designed catapults that held back invading Romans for three years in their siege of his home town, he designed large mirrors that focused the sun’s rays on attacking ships and set the ships on fire — the list is truly amazing. Even the enemies of his country knew that his brain was the marvel of the ancient world, so the Roman general who finally conquered his city ordered that he be captured alive. According to legend, the soldier who came to take him found the great man studying some geometric designs he had drawn in the sand. When the soldier ordered his prisoner to follow him, Archimedes said, “All right, but don’t spoil the diagram” — an order which insulted and enraged the Roman, who killed him on the spot. So ended one of the most remarkable lives of ancient times.
It was still another of his inventions that made me decide to begin this morning’s sermon with Archimedes. Realizing the power of the lever, he announced one day that if he had a fixed fulcrum to work with he could move any thing. “Give me a place to stand,” he said with dramatic hyperbole, “and I will move the earth.” He was talking, of course, about physical possibilities, but the metaphor works just as well for possibilities of mind and spirit — the things we’re interested in when we come here on a day like this. “A place to stand” — it happens to belong to a whole group of familiar metaphors: “Stand up and be counted.” “Stand up for your rights.” “Take a stand.” The Apostle Paul liked it as a figure of speech. He begged his Philippian church to “Stand firm in the Lord”. And to the Christians at Ephesus, he said the same: “Having done all, to stand.” A certain psychiatrist considered that one of the best pieces of advice he had ever seen. “Do all you can,” he said, “do the best you can, and when there is no more to be done, stand. Stop fretting, let the matter rest..”
Archimedes knew that without a fulcrum, without a solid base, his lever wouldn’t work to move much of anything. I had a rather strange opportunity to find this out one day, years ago, at Cheney Lake. An old friend of mine, whose ambitions have often outrun his skills, invited me to try out his new sailing boat with him. I knew with a sinking heart, as I watched him struggle to set up the main sail and the jig that he really didn’t know what he was doing, so I suggested that perhaps we should come back later in the day when there would be other boats on the lake to rescue us if we got into trouble. But he was determined to go sailing, so when he finally felt we had all the ropes and pulleys set he told me to cast off from the end of the pier. I did, a gust of wind slammed into the sail, and we promptly capsized — a humiliating ten feet from the dock. I was glad no one was watching. Fortunately, we were still in such shallow water that our feet touched bottom — we had a place to stand — and we easily got the boat upright again and bailed it out. We faced it in a different direction, I cut us loose again, and we went careening wildly out through the harbor toward the open water.
Within three minutes the winds had blown us into the very middle of the lake, and then another violent gust hit us and this time it turned us completely upside down, so that the 20-foot mast was straight down in the water and resting on the mud. We tried to roll the boat, but — floating — we had no place to stand, and with the centerboard retracted we had no leverage. It became apparent after a while that with no other boats on the lake someone would have to swim to the distant shore and go for help. We held a brief conference about who would stay behind to sit on the boat bottom, which was exactly level with the water, and who would swim off against the wind and high waves. I mentioned reluctantly that Fred was much younger, and that I had a congregation counting on me to be present on the following Sunday, so Fred swam off in his life jacket and I sat on the boat bottom while the waves rolled over it and thought how surprised someone would be to look out with binoculars and see one man flailing toward shore while the other, with nothing of the boat visible, apeared to be sitting miraculously on top of the water. In the hour it took for Fred to reach somebody, I also kept thinking how easy it would have been to right the boat if we had just had someplace to stand….and by and by the boast of Archimedes that he could move the earth if he only had a place to stand wandered into my mind, and from there — having nothing else to do and hoping the boat wouldn’t sink completely under me — I began to think about how having a place to stand must have some sermon possibilities! It was an interesting place to do research.
I want to say quickly that having a philosophical place to stand does not mean being stuck in one spot, immovable. One may choose to take an open-minded stance toward truth….and that is a form of stability, no matter where the truth may chance to lead. It fascinated me to learn that when Charles Darwin was out in the field he always tried to put down in his notebook every piece of evidence that seemed to contradict his theory of evolution. You know, of course, that this is a highly uncommon practice. He explained it this way: “If I did not do this, I would tend to forget the contradictory evidence, since what stays in the mind is whatever we find most agreeable.”
I can hadly imagine a philosophy that would change life more than that if we followed it. Our habit is to see what we want to see — and perhaps, if it isn’t there, to create it — and to ignore completely whatever it is that we do not want to see. We do it in religion. We do it in politics. We blind ourselves to any evidence which does not support our point of view. I find it ironic that Darwin, still attacked from thousands of pulpits, took a stance toward truth far more noble than that of most of his opponents. On a solid fulcrum of absolute honesty, his lever of lifelong research, moved and changed the world of ideas as few events in history have ever done. Whatever you decide about his conclusions, you cannot read about his life without admiring the stance he took toward his work.
We are, of course, in a church at worship rather than in a lecture hall, so we are more interested in moral and ethical stability than any other kind at this moment, and for advice on that score here is a comment from a letter known as 2nd Peter. To have a place to stand, it says, we have to “grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord.” That sounds curiously flat, doesn’t it? We’d like something more dramatic. The words are so easily passed over — grace and knowledge — simply because we hear them so often. “To grow in grace” — that’s a challenge of character, a matter of coming to have a mind more and more like Christ’s, so that in all sorts of circumstances our responses will be like his. “To grow in knowledge — that’s a challenge of intelligence. Not just an ever deeper understanding of what Christ taught, but a sense of his reality so that we do some things and reject others because we have thought enough about Him to imagine His presence.
Let me illustrate how that could be by using an example that is simple and close to everyone’s experience. Some years ago I realized the dream of a lifetime when I got to teach a couple of graduate seminars devoted exclusively to the American novelist Thomas Wolfe. Even though modern American literature was not my primary specialty, I got the seminar on the basis of having read, through the years, everything Wolfe wrote — literally every line, even from the notebooks he did not publish, and from every book and article written about him by others — and from having twice visited, with considerable devotion, the old boarding house in Asheville, North Carolina where he grew up.
Over the years I grew in knowledge of Wolfe until although I never saw him he came to seem more real to me than many people around me. I came to know his suspicious nature as a boy who grew up closed in by great mountains. I knew his tormented battles with his own genius. I knew his restless spirit which, not ever having won the kind of love a child needs, always looked for it everywhere, desperately, and could never be quite sure he had found it. There were times when it was hard for me to know whether my own reaction to something was uniquely mine, or was the result of how much Wolfe’s personality and thought had influenced me. In much the same way, people who read the New Testament, who live with excellent books written about Christ, and who talk with others about him, reach a point where he really does come to seem a living presence in their lives. My analogy, of course, is not perfect. I have never once wished to imitate Thomas Wolfe’s character, but I have many times wished to imitate more perfectly the character of Christ — which is another way of saying where I would like to take my stand.
Sometimes it helps to describe Christian faith and conduct in words different from those heard so often in Scripture, so for that reason — and because several of you have asked to hear it again after many years — I want to read part of a lovely prose poem which was found in the old St. Paul’s Church in Baltimore, author unknown, date: 1692. It goes by the title of Desiderata, which means essentially “the things which are necessary.” What it does superbly is to present a philosophical ground on which one may base a life to make the most of it. I don’t know where you could find better advice or find it more eloquently expressed. Every sentence is pregnant with wisdom. Every sentence could be the topic of a whole sermon. Listen carefully — and remember: : “Go placidly amid the noise and haste, and remember what peace there may be in silence. As far as possible, without surrender, be on good terms with all persons. Speak your truith quietly and clearly; and listen to others, even the dull and ignorant; they, too, have their story. If you compare yourself with others, you may become vain and bitter; for always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself. Take kindly to the counsel of the years, gracefully surrendering the things of youth. Be yourself. Especially do not feign affection. Neither be cynical about love; for in the face of all aridity and disenchantment it is as perennial as the grass.
“Do not stress yourself with imaginings. Many fears are born of fatigue and loneliness. Beyond a wholesome discipline, be gentle with yourself. You are a child of the universe, no less than the trees and the stars; you have a right to be here. Therefore, be at peace with God, whatever you conceive him to be, and whatever your labors and aspirations, in the noisy confusion of life, keep peace with your soul. With all its sham, drudgery and broken dreams, it is still a beautiful world.”
I told you last week that I do not spend time regretting past years which I cannot change. I will admit that sometimes I have wished that I had made a decision at age 20 to spend the first few minutes of every morning of my life in meditation on those wise words. How I would have grown….in grace and knowledge! Some of you could still do it…..
Keep us steady, Eternal Spirit of love and justice, through all the changing
weather of life, we ask in the name of Christ our Lord. Amen.