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A post-homiletical discourse delivered by the Rev. Dr. James R. Beebe
Rector, St. Patrick’s Church, Incline Village, Nevada, June 12, 2011
“Yonder is the sea, great and wide, creeping things innumerable are there, living things both small and great.”
So how y’all doin’ this morning? For anyone who has lived in the South, this is common coinage for the second person plural. It may even be an improvement on the standard “you,” which can be confusing, since it refers both to second person singular and second person plural. But wait – even “y’all” gets more complicated.
Y’all can be a replacement for the plural of “you,” as in, “Y’all can use the internet at the same time!” But it can also be an associative plural, including individuals, but not present, with the singular addressee (as in, “Y’all can come over at around 10:30,” referring not only to the person you’re speaking to, but also to that person’s absent friends).
Y’all can also be an institutional plural, addressed to one person representing a group (as in, “Y’all sell the best candies, Mrs. Johnson”). Likewise, y’all can be a form used in direct address at greetings and invitations (as in, “Hi, y’all!”).
I suppose y’all might say that y’all is an improvement over “you.” And it happened about the time the distinction between “thee” and “thou” fell out of use. And I guess it’s better than either “you-uns” or “youse.” But the real rub is whether or not y’all can be improved by further clarifying with “all y’all.”
Then again, with some help from Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh, the issue is less confusing. He and Thomas Merton, the famous Trappist monk from Kentucky, talked about singulars and plurals way back in the ‘60’s. From that conversation came the interesting concept of “interbeing.” It goes like this:
Take a look at the service bulletin for this morning. Do you see the cloud floating in it? It’s there, believe me. Because without a cloud, there would be no rain. And without rain, trees wouldn’t grow. And without trees, you couldn’t have a bulletin. The cloud is essential for the bulletin to exist. If the cloud isn’t there, the bulletin isn’t either. They exist together. So the cloud and the paper inter-are. They are not separate entities.
Scott Sampson is a paleontologist and author. And he’s about to shed some light on the real meaning of “y’all.” One of the most deeply ingrained notions in the Western mindset, he says, is the illusion that we are separate within our skin, that our skin denotes the boundary of our separateness from everything else.
Listen to author Annie Dillard on how the mind can never be satisfied: “The mind wants the world to return its love, or its awareness; the mind wants to know all the world, and all eternity, and God. The mind’s sidekick, however, will settle for two eggs over easy.
The dear, stupid body is as easily satisfied as a spaniel. And, incredibly, the simple spaniel can lure the brawling mind to its dish. It is everlastingly funny that the proud, metaphysically ambitious, clamoring mind will hush if you give it an egg.”
The problem, of course, is that 60 years ago people didn’t think wholistically. Our whole Western heritage was based on individuality and separateness (even the separateness of body and mind). Consequently, when we acted, we did so on what we perceived to be our own self-interests. But is that really true?
* I’m assuming that y’all are breathing out there in the pews. Exactly when did your exhalations cease being you?
* Now look out the window. Energized by sunlight, life converts inanimate rock into nutrients. These, in turn, pass through plants, Douglas squirrels and coyotes before being decomposed and returned to the earth, beginning the cycle again. Or, as the psalmist writes:
“When you hide your face, they are dismayed; when you take away their breath they die and return to their dust. When you send forth your spirit they are created; and you renew the face of the ground.”
Yeah, yeah, sure, you say. But at any given moment I’m still a separate self. Well, not so fast. As you sit there this morning, your mouth alone contains more than 700 distinct kinds of bacteria. Your skin and eyelashes and stomach host a multitude of bacterial sidekicks. It’s estimated that you contain about one trillion individual cells and about ten trillion bacterial cells. In other words, at any given moment, your body is about 90% non-human!
So look at all of those guests you brought to church this morning! You are truly, y’all, n’est pas? Y’all aren’t isolated beings; y’all are more like whirlpools (in Sampson’s words, “brief, ever-shifting concentrations of energy in a vast river that’s been flowing for billions of years.”
The dividing line between “self” and “other” is in many respects arbitrary. Where, exactly, do you want to make the cut? When does the food you eat become “you,” exactly?
So y’all are literally just that – selves within larger selves. This is what “interbeing” means. And if that’s true, then we have to start looking at other forms of life not as objects, but as subjects – fellow travelers. You might even conclude that you are not “things” so much as “processes.”
And how can we continue to define ourselves as individual beings when science has proven that we are actually societies of cooperating beings? Suppose that we are, literally – with all of the little critters acting on our behalf within each of us – part of the same thing? Then, helping others is actually helping ourselves and all of the other little critters. And harming others is actually harming ourselves and all of the other little critters.
Time for another Fred Craddock story. He remembers the first church he served as a seminarian. They had a fund called the Emergency Fund and had about $100 in it. They told him he could use it at his discretion, if he didn’t give it to anybody who was in need as a result of laziness, drunkenness or poor management. He supposes that they still have that $100.
Then he was in graduate school at Vanderbilt. He was cramming for the comprehensive exams, which were make-or-break. Every night about 11:30 or so he’d go to an all-night diner and have a grilled cheese and cup of coffee, just to take a break. It was the same every night and the guy behind the counter soon knew to make a grilled cheese and cup of coffee as soon as he walked in.
One night he noticed a shabbily-dressed man who was there, but hadn’t been waited on. At long last, the guy behind the counter went to the man and asked him curtly what he wanted. Whatever the man said the counter guy went to the grill, scooped up a burned little dark patty and slapped it on a piece of bread without any condiments. The man took it outside and sat on the curb to eat his sandwich.
Fred didn’t say anything. He didn’t protest or go out and sit beside the man on the curb. He didn’t do anything. He was thinking about the questions coming up on the New Testament exam. And he left that diner and went up the hill to his room to resume his studies.
And off in the distance, he heard a cock crow.