Celestial Lands The Religious Crossroads of Politics, Power, and Theology

Speaking Through Thatched Cottages — Sermon by the Rev. David Pyle

Last Preached September 25th, 2011

Opening to Sermon


A Sermon is not something that comes into existence

in the mind of a preacher.

A sermon does not begin its being

when words are placed on paper.

When a sermon is put onto paper,

it is merely an essay.

When a sermon is given in a way

that it does not engage those listening,

it is merely a speech.

A preacher does not craft a sermon sitting in their study,

nor does a preacher craft a sermon alone.

A Sermon only comes into existence in that space

between the free pulpit and the free pew…

between the preacher and the congregation.

This is why a sermon on paper

always seems flat, without form.


This is why this most radical of denominations

has kept the sermon as the center

of our worship for centuries…

because in the true efforts between the preacher and the congregation,

between the free pulpit and the free pew,

something new is born… something sacred.


In a sermon, the thoughts and feelings

that occur in your mind and heart as you listen

are even more important than what is being said.

The stories that come up for you

are more important than the stories the minister tells.

The sermon does not have as its primary goal to inform,

but rather to evoke… not to pour in, but to draw from.

This is the reason for the old adage among preachers,

that if you preach a sermon to a congregation of 40 people,

there are actually 43 sermons in existence:


The sermon the preacher wrote,

the sermon the preacher intended to give,

the sermon the preacher actually gave,

and 40 different sermons that occur

in the minds and hearts of each person

who participated in crafting the sermon

that particular Sunday morning, by being present.


Each of us brings forth our own unique life and experiences

to our time together on Sunday mornings.

Each of us creates our own sermon,

with the raw material presented by the preacher from the pulpit.

This is the essence of the Free Pulpit and the Free Pew

that is central to worship in a Free Faith.


And so, this morning, I am going to present the raw material.

I am going to present the sermon in its draft,

in its uncompleted form.


This is the most a preacher can ever hope to do…

and every sermon I or any other minister ever preaches

is only a draft until it is heard

by at least one member of a gathered congregation.

After I have presented this raw sermon this morning,

I would like you to take a few minutes to meditate on has occurred

in your own mind and heart while I am preaching,

what stories arose for you, what feelings you may have had…

and then in our time of fellowship that will come

after the worship service, while we have coffee in Berg Hall,

I invite you to share something from that experience

with those around you.

Perhaps a quick story, or a feeling, or a thought,

or a memory of some time that came before,

or a dream of something to come.

For it is in this sharing that we are in communion with one another.


This morning, and every morning that I step into this pulpit,

I invite you to craft with me the sermon.



Speaking through Thatched Cottages


When I was fourteen years old,

I came across a reference in a book I was reading

to a painting by Vincent Van Gogh.

In the story, a character felt very moved by this painting.

So, in my curiosity, I found a book on Van Gogh’s artwork

in our High School library.


This oil on canvass painting is a relatively minor work,

currently in one of the lesser known museums in France.

I have never seen it in person,

but I have to admit that when I looked at the picture in the book,

I understood why the fictional character felt so moved.


Van Gogh called it “Thatched Cottages at Cordeville”.

Sitting on the floor of the library, staring at it

I began to feel as if I were a part of the painting.


In the foreground of the painting is a rolling hill,

covered by soft, green grasses.

Along the bottom of the painting is a fence,

which encloses a garden and what looks like an orchard,

as well as a house.

The house is very homey looking,

with a thatched roof, soft angles,

light brown walls, and wispy smoke

rising from one of the chimneys.

Far from looking as if it were simply placed on the land,

the house, along with the garden and the fence,

all seem to be a part of the land, almost part of nature.


But as your eyes rise up in the painting,

the story becomes a bit more menacing.


Behind the house, trees seem to be whipping in a storm.

The sky is dark and threatening.

One of the clouds in the sky appeared to me to be an eye,

an evil eye looking down upon the house.

I thought I saw a cemetery

set back behind the orchard at the time,

but when I look at the painting now,

my eyes have trouble finding it.


Things were rough in my life at the time.

I had just come into a new high school,

I didn’t have very many friends,

and it didn’t seem like I was going to find any.

Being a freshman is usually enough,

but being a freshman and not knowing anyone is worse.

Little did I know there were many who felt as alienated as I did.


As I sat there on the floor of the library,

Vincent Van Gogh spoke to me.

Through his painting, I saw my life, and my home.


In my neighborhood, I had friends,

but they were all going to a different school.

Home was safe, home was warm and inviting.

The rest of the world was menacing and frightening,

with storm clouds and a large evil eye watching everything I did.


I did soon make friends, friends who felt as excluded as I did,

but as I sat there on the floor of that library,

Vincent Van Gogh spoke to me,

though he had been dead for a hundred years.




One evening six years ago,

I sat on the seawall of Galveston Island, in Texas,

looking out over the Gulf of Mexico.


My eyes were fixed on a thunderstorm out at sea.

I could see lightning flashing from cloud to cloud,

and from the sky down to the water.

As I watched, I saw a waterspout form,

rise up from the water to touch the clouds…

a tornado at sea.


I was awestruck by the beauty, the power,

and the majesty of the scene.

When later that same year a storm named Hurricane Rita

came with such strength and magnitude

that we were forced to flee inland,

my then fiancée and my cat

and all of our most precious belongings packed into our car,

the fear in their eyes echoed in my own heart,

something within me remembered the awe and majesty

of that solitary waterspout.

Remembering that awe calmed my fears,

and allowed us to find safety and shelter.

As I sat there on the seawall,

and later as I sat in my car in an evacuation,

in awe of that solitary waterspout,

something spoke deep within me.




Eight years ago, I was reading through

some poetry on the internet,

and I came across a poem, rather innocently,

by a poet I had never heard of before.

The poet’s name was Langston Hughes.

It was a simple poem… but when I read it I did not understand it.


What happens to a dream deferred?

  Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?

  Or fester like a sore–
and then run?

  Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over–
like a syrupy sweet?

  Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.

Or does it explode?


What dream?  Who’s dream?

The imagery was evocative,

and I think some of the more provocative imagery

was what kept it coming back into my mind.

To try and figure it out, I decided to find out

who Langston Hughes was…


The reality came down upon me like a hammer blow.

The picture of Langston Hughes at the top of his biography

told me that his dream… the dream deferred…

was the same dream that Martin Luther King had spoken of,

for Langston Hughes was black.

The dream that had been deferred,

long before King spoke of it,

was the dream of racial equality and justice.

The family I grew up in was not the most tolerant of families.

I know my grandfather could not have

seen the beauty and challenge

I have found in Langston Hughes’ poetry.


I only know that I was in my thirties

before I ever heard of the Poet Laureate of the black experience.

I certainly did not encounter him

in my public schooling in Tennessee.


As I sat reading and re-reading poem after poem

over a period of weeks and months,

and indeed in the years since, Langston Hughes spoke to me,

though he had been dead long before I was born.




As a boy, I once knocked over an ant hill with a stick.

Ok, more than once!

But this particular time, after I knocked it over,

I took a seat on a rock and watched what the ants did.

I watched what seemed like thousands of ants rally together

and begin the process of rebuilding their home.

Like a military unit, they attacked the task,

and in less than an hour, they had their home back.

As I look back, I don’t think I ever intentionally

knocked over an ant hill again.  Why?


Because something spoke to me

as I watched those ant work diligently together,

interdependent upon one another.

This was the time in my life when I began to see the world

as being much more complex than I ever imagined…

when I began to see other living beings

as having worlds of their own, in which I was the intruder, a

nd not the other way around.

It was the first time I remember feeling as if I were one of the ants,

and realizing that their experience of the spirit of life

was just as valid and important as my own.

As I watched those ants rebuild their mound,

something spoke deep within me.



I was on a military exercise one night, perhaps 17 years ago now.

It was late at night, around 3am.

It was my turn to get some sleep,

and so I stretched out on the ground

behind where my buddies were keeping watch.


We were in the middle of a field in North Carolina.

I bundled up against the cold,

and was looking at the stars as I tried to fall asleep.

Across the sky there streaked a shooting star…

and then another, and another, and another.

Their colors were incredible as they came one after another,

tracing across the sky.

I have tried to make time to see

the Leonid meteor shower every year since.

I have become fascinated with the perspective that,

even though we are, as Douglas Adams put it,

“living on an insignificant Blue-Green planet,

in the backwater of the western spiral arm of a minor Galaxy”,

we still have the ability to worship

the majesty of the immensity that surrounds us.


We are, in some sense,

that part of the universe that can look upon the rest

not only in awe, but in a way that seeks to find

the meaning within the immensity of the Universe.

Each time I spend a cold November evening

laying on my back in a field watching the shooting stars,

something speaks deep within me…




Over 8 years ago now,

I took a trip to Chicago to apply to attend a theological school.

I had a two hour layover in the Dallas Ft. Worth airport.

After the plane landed,

I found a table in a small café not far from my gate,

and pulled out the book I was reading.


The book was a biography of Clara Barton,

entitled “Professional Angel”.

Clara was, well, an angel.


During the American Civil War,

Clara was one of only a few women allowed on the battlefields,

allowed to move with the Union Army.

She was a nurse, a cook, a comforter, and a healer.

After the war, she founded the American Red Cross.


Her Universalist upbringing had not prepared her

for what she saw of war, and it shook her soul.

The biography included excerpts of letters and journal entries

where Clara described the horrors of the war

occurring all around her.

She talked of vicious wounds, of smoke and cannon fire,

of soldiers who came back from the field of battle

with haunted looks in their eyes,

and of all the soldiers who never came back at all.


Images of my service ran through my mind…

some of them I had not thought of in awhile.

Many were of Bosnia, or of villages in Colombia.

Something deep within began to move.


When I looked up from my book,

I saw a young man, dressed in desert camouflage fatigues,

walking past my table with a pack on his back,

a bandaged cast on his foot, and crutches under his arms.

He had that haunted look in his eyes,

the same one that Clara had seen so many times.


As my eyes misted over, I looked around the terminal

and saw scores of young men and women

moving among the crowd wearing those same desert fatigues.

Most of them were whole in body,

but in many I saw echoes of those same haunted eyes…

I could almost tell from their expressions

which ones were coming home from Iraq or Afghanistan,

and which ones were headed back.


Unlike many of our experiences these last 10 years,

Clara believed in the war she experienced,

and in her time I might also have supported the Civil War.

But the horrors of war tore at her all the same.

What Clara and I shared though, was a love for those young men,

and now women in uniform.

Many simply looking for a way

to escape disadvantaged backgrounds,

they did not choose these wars,

and yet still they serve and persevere.


With tears in my eyes, I grabbed my bag

and walked up to the wounded soldier.

Not wanting to impose myself any more than I felt had to,

I simply looked in his eyes and said “Thank you for your service”.

He smiled, and the haunted look went away, just a little bit,

and I found a quiet place to sit down and compose myself.


Clara Barton was gone from this world a hundred years ago,

but in that airport she spoke to me.


Through a waterspout, through a painted thatched cottage,

through the haunted look in the eyes of a soldier,

through an anthill, through a poem,

or through the wonder of a shooting star…

something speaks to me.


Something, many different somethings

that may perhaps be all the same, all connected,

are speaking to each and every one of us,

every moment of our lives.

We have only to slow down enough to listen.


Peter Mayer once said in a song…


This morning, outside I stood and saw a little red-winged bird,
Shining like a burning bush, singing like a scripture verse.
It made me want to bow my head,

I remember when church let out,
How things have changed since then… everything is holy now.

It used to be a world half there,

Heaven’s second rate hand-me-down,
But I walk it with a reverent air ‘cause everything is holy now.


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