Sermon: September 26th — “From It to Thou”

“From It to Thou”

Reverend Stacy Swain, The Union Church in Waban

September 26, 2010
Scripture: Jer 18: 1-6;  Psalm 84 

           For the last few weeks, I have asked us to consider that the purpose for our gathering together as church and, in fact, the purpose of our living all together, is to grow in love.  I have lifted up the wisdom of Dorethee Söelle, who says that growth in love is not just realizing how much God loves us.  But that growth in love is also about how we are to love God.  For truly genuine love is mutual.  The mutuality of this love affair, a holy trinity of love between God neighbor and self, I am suggesting is the life-spring and purpose of our living.

           We have talked about how we love God by trusting God.  Trusting that God is with us and will never leave us, gives us courage in difficult times to not turn to idols of our own making in efforts to alleviate our pain.  And last week we talked about another way to love God and that is to become the full people that God would have us be.  To live fully alive, Irenaeus tells us, is to give God the greatest glory. 

           Today, I would like to take one step further and suggest one more way that we can love God, a way of loving that flows out of both our trust in God and engagement in the fullness of who we are.  This third way of loving God is when we find and participate in the potentiality of being that resides deep within all that is

           Let me begin with a story.  Many years ago, I took a job at the Pine Street Inn, a large homeless shelter in Boston.  I had graduated from college just months before and was working for a local arts council.  But the arts council work just wasn’t doing it for me.  I wanted to spend my time working on something that I thought really mattered.  I wanted to do justice, make a difference, make the world a better place.  And so I left the arts council and took a job as a worker in the men’s unit, of the Pine Street Inn.  At that time there were anywhere from 300 to 500 men who would sleep at the shelter each night and my job was to be there at from 7 in the morning until three in the afternoon helping people find jobs, housing, food, health care, and any other material need they may have. 

          Now the amazing thing about this, looking back, is that I felt perfectly capable of doing this job.  I was quite convinced going into it that I could solve the problems of homelessness for these 300-500 men.  I had done my research about what programs were available, there the resource were. I had a plan and believed that if I just moved the pieces a bit all would fall into place.  Lives would be rebuilt, problems solved.

           I will never forget my first day.   I was completely overwhelmed by the reality of what I encountered and by the time the afternoon rolled around I was ready to quit.  It was just too big.  There were too many people and the needs made my head spin and my heart break.  What in the world could I this, dewy eyed, kid from Duluth Minnesota offer these men who walked in nightmarish worlds beyond my imagining?

           Late in that first day, my supervisor, Jay Todd a Maryknoll priest, came up to me as I stood by the window looking out at the men gathering in the yard.  He must have seen my despair.  I asked him what in the world I was doing here and he said “just go out there.”  Walk through those door and go out there and sit down on a bench, any bench.  And so I did.  It was the longest walk in my life, but I walked into the yard and sat down on the first open bench that I could find.  I sat down next to a man whose nose was shaped like an S from what I would later learn was a career in professional boxing.  I just sat down.  Now the amazing thing was not that I sat down out in the yard, but that when I did, the man with the S shaped nose began to talk to me.  Not about much at first but over the months and years, as I listened these men who had once only been, to me, the summation of their need and problems became the people they truly were.   I was changed.  I stopped seeing these men as a manifestation of an issue of injustice, but instead saw them as men.  Hurting but hoping men.   And instead of seeing my work as that of problem solving, I came to see my work as primarily relational, of creating the trust and space so that the person behind the problems could be known.

          I offer this story because I believe it illustrates what Martin Buber, a Jewish German philosopher poet and theologian calls the movement from a primary relation of “I-it” to a primary relation of “I-thou.”  Buber writes “that to man, the world is two-fold.  We relate as either I-It or we relate to the world as I-thou.  When we interact with the world on the dimension of I-It, the world and all that is in it becomes the object of our subjectivity.  “I perceive something.  I am sensible of something.  I imagine something.  I will something.  I feel something. I think something.”[1].  It is in this realm of “I-It” that most of our living takes place.   Our days are full of things that we move around and try to put in their right places.  I for one start my weeks and my days with a to do list and draw great satisfaction when I get to check something off. 

 Buber reminds us that there is nothing wrong with this realm of I-it.  It has practical usefulness, but it does not have the power to fulfill.  It cannot feed our longing for meaning and does not open us to the purpose of our being.  It cannot lead us deep into the love that is our beginning and our end, love that frames our living and animates our life.

Though we may crave purpose to our living, it is not easy to move from the realm of I-it and to begin to dwell in the realm of I-thou. In a recent article in the Christian Century Magazine, poet Christian Wiman writes that to open ourselves to this realm means that we must accept that God exists apart from the notion of what it means to exist.  He says “There is a sense in which our most pressing existential question has to be outgrown before it can be answered.” This I believe is what Buber means when he says  “the realm of thou has a different basis.”  “When thou is spoken, that which the speaker is addressing is no thing. Instead the speaker takes his stand in relation.   There is no subject and object distance. Instead there is a mutuality that Buber claims is infused with what he calls the presence of the “eternal Thou.”  Instead of a construction of me and other, subject and object. Of acting and being acted upon there is instead a sense of being caught up into something larger, a we.  This, Buber calls the cradle of Real Life.

Buber goes on to say that this “I-thou” relation is “the eternal source of art.” “A man,” he writes “is faced by form which desires to be made through him into a work.  This form is no offspring of his soul, but is an appearance which steps up to it and demands of it the effective power.  If he speaks the primary word “Thou” out of his being to the form, then the effective power streams out, and the work arises.” [2] 

                Can you imagine what it would be like to live with the soul of this kind of artistry. To see in everything and everyone a potentiality that is waiting to take form?  To look on everything and every one not as already set, frozen in time and place waiting to be acted upon, experienced, utilized in some way, but instead as potentiality waiting to arise and take form.  To take up all we encounter with the loving hands of the potter, holding all that is which gentleness and care so that the form that is made to be, can be helped into being through our hands. 

 To live in this way, this I-thou relation, I suggest, begins with letting ourselves become clay in the hands of our God.  It begins, I suggest with a dropping of our shoulders, a softening of our gaze, a malleability of heart, a willingness to let the potentiality inside ourselves be drawn into form by God and by the community of care around us.  For, as Buber writes, “thou meets me through grace – it is not found by seeking.  The Thou meets me.  I step into direct relationship with it.  I-Thou can be spoken only with the whole being.  Concentration and fusion into the whole being can never take place through my agency, not can it ever take place without me.  I become through my relation to the Thou; as I become I, I say Thou.  All real living is meeting.”[3].

 So this third way of loving God comes about when we allow ourselves to be caught up in relationship with the Holy in all things so that we see the world not as a static landscape of things upon which we act but as a dynamic, fluid interchange where we participate in the unfolding of the potentiality of all things even as we ourselves are experiencing that unfolding of our own potentiality.

 Dietrich Bonhoeffer used a different image that may be helpful to introduce at t his point.  Bonhoeffer, in Life Together, says that true community, true relation,  can only exist when we discover that Christ is our mediator to all things.  We participate in the love of God and love of neighbor, the purpose of our lives, when we allow all of our interactions to pass through the person and presence of Jesus.

 So we participate in this great love affair with God and with all that is, we participate in our purpose of being by trusting in God.  We participate in this great love affair with God and all that is when we live ito the fullness of who God calls us to be.  And we participate in this great love affair when we allow ourselves to be caught up by grace into the dynamic mutuality of I-thou so that the potentiality of all that is, not only of ourselves, but of all creation has being.  Those days on the park benches at the Pine Street Inn, helped me by grace to experience and be shaped by the reverence of relating to all as a Thou not an It. But I what I did not know then but do so now is that I need not have left the arts council to do so. 

 You see the world and everything in it is yearning to be experienced not as an It but as a Thou.  This is the great hunger of our time.  Those we meet at the copy machine at work, those in the check out line at the grocery store, those collecting the tolls on the MassPike, look deeply into anyone’s eyes and you will see a yearning to be known not as an it but as a Thou.  To have someone else see, even for a moment the potentiality that the Eternal Thou has infused in us.  This is why, I believe it was so powerful to be seen by Jesus.  Lives were changed just by a look from this man from Galilee, this man who dwelt so completely in the Thou.   Jesus had this uncanny way of seeing deep inside all he met, deep into the potentiality that was yearning to take form.  To see oneself reflected in his eyes was to be born to new life.   

  So let us love God by having the eyes to see new life and the hands to bring that new life to form. Let us by God’s grace be the potter, seeing and revealing the potentiality of all things.  And let us love God by having  the grace to let others see us in this way and let us be formed anew through the movement of Love in our lives. May it be so. 


[1] Martin Buber I And Thou.  Trans. Ronald Gregor Smith. (T.&T. Clark: Edinburgh: 1937). P. 4

[2]  P. 10

[3] P. 11