"Do not be afraid; I am the first and the last, and the living one. I was dead, and see, I am alive forever and ever; and I have the keys of Death and of Hades. Now write what you have seen, what is, and what is to take place after this." Rev. 1:17-19.

Friday, July 15, 2016

A Life-Giving God in a Basket of Endings

 Proper 11, Year C

Amos 8:1-12
Psalm 52
Colossians 1:15-28
Luke 10:38-42

Almighty God, the fountain of all wisdom, you know our necessities before we ask and our ignorance in asking: Have compassion on our weakness, and mercifully give us those things which for our unworthiness we dare not, and for our blindness we cannot ask; through the worthiness of your Son Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen
I have something to show you today! I don’t usually do an object lesson, but if God can do one in today’s first reading from Amos, then I might as well give it a try. [Hold up basket of fruit.] You all take Amos’ role here: “What do you see?”
 … Yes, a basket of fruit, a basket of summer fruit, straight from yesterday’s farmers’ market! I love fresh summer fruit, don’t you? In May, we see baskets of strawberries, bursting with bright red flavor; in June, there are juicy blueberries and blackberries; now we have velvety peaches; and soon we will get tender figs, the ancient summer fruit that Amos probably would have seen in God’s basket.
There is one problem with this delicious abundance of fruit, though. Unlike apples and oranges, which can last awhile, summer fruit starts to go bad much too quickly, doesn’t it? The pieces at the top of the basket might still look plump and shiny, but down at the bottom, hidden in the dark, an icky gray fuzz will start sprouting and silently spreading. Quickly, the disgusting mold will move up and down, in and out, from one piece of fruit to another until the whole basket is spoiled and runny with slime.
You won’t notice without reading the notes in your bibles, but “summer fruit” in Hebrew is a clever pun on the word “ending.” At once, God shows Amos both a basket of summer fruit, and a “basket of endings.” Holding the cup of rotting raspberries in my fridge, I can easily imagine a rotten basket of endings—slimy, moldy endings, endings that run and stink, endings that we cannot stomach, endings that creep up on us through death, through sin, through time. Just hold Amos’ words up to the recent news headlines: a joyful summer fireworks celebration and an evening of dancing that terrorism suddenly turns to mass slaughter; a peaceful demonstration that hatred turns to violent death; loving lives brought to an unjust end by fear and racism; once-happy families cast out into a harsh and unwelcome world by war. Fear, violence, hatred, misunderstanding, destruction … they all seem to spread through the fragile skin of our lives like mold through summer fruit, touching us all, condemning us all.
We are all much too well-acquainted with the basket of endings: the ending of joy, the ending of meaning, the ending of words, the ending of relationship, the ending where only the deserted quiet of the trash heap leaves us in defeated silence. What we want is permanence. What we want is to know that the good fruit will last. My tendency these days is to demand reassurance from God that the rot will stop spreading. My prayers are pleas for fruit that doesn’t go bad, life that doesn’t end, a world that is guaranteed to stay sane and safe.
I was reminded of my mother’s fruit bowl. When I was a child, we might have had an old apple or orange rolling around in the back of the fridge, but we mainly ate our fruit canned—DelMonte-style. The only basket of fruit in my house was my mother’s pride and joy: an intricate silver filigree bowl filled with wooden fruit, placed on the table for all to admire year round. Each piece was painted to look like real fruit. When I was little, I loved to sneak over and play with it when no one was looking.  I would pick the pieces up one after the other, slowly and carefully, weighing each one in my hands, turning it in admiration, and then fitting it back in its silver bowl, like a puzzle piece. Each fruit had such a smooth, cool heaviness in my hand. Solidly satisfying. Unyielding. Just the way I want my world to be, the way I want my God to be.
 But God doesn’t show Amos a bowl of wooden fruit, does he? Left with only my mother’s wooden fruit, we would starve, both in our bodies and in our souls. God’s true presence is far from comforting imitation. It’s not there just for show. True life, God-given life, is not a bowl of changeless certainties. As I pondered today’s text, I made an interesting discovery. “Summer fruit” might be a pun on “endings,” but “summer fruit” is only used elsewhere in the Hebrew scriptures in a positive, celebratory way. Summer fruit is the food of kings, of banquets. It is fresh and pregnant with life-giving juice. In scripture, there’s no mention of its rotting. Summer fruit in other texts stands only for the enjoyment of plenty and prosperity in the moment.[1]
It made me wonder why God shows Amos a basket of this fragrant, life-filled fruit in the midst of the desolation of endings. Perhaps God puts this alluring basket out not just for judgment, as it might seem at first, but also to offer us life in the midst of death. After all, God sends God’s Son into this decaying world, where he becomes a part of all of its messy endings. God’s Son dies in the biggest ending of all, an ending similar to the one that God describes to Amos. Jesus breathes his last, and the sun goes down and the sky darkens in broad daylight, and the earth quakes and is tossed about like the waters of the Nile. Holy Saturday, like this section of our text, ends in utter silence. And yet in Jesus’ Cross and Resurrection, this Ending of all endings is also a beginning, the beginning of our salvation.
Perhaps this basket of summer fruit is a gift from God, a gift to remind us that ours is a God who makes beginnings out of endings. When the world gets us down, perhaps we can imagine God carefully choosing for us a ripe fruit from a tree at the corner of heaven and earth, picking it gently from the salvation-bearing arms of Christ, and placing it in our parched mouths? Can you taste its live sweetness, like joy? Can you smell its deep fragrance, like incense? Can you feel it drip down your throat with all of the life-giving force of that first sip of orange juice after surgery? Can you feel it strengthening you to face the endings we must live in this world, strengthening you to turn and offer this same sweet gift to others?
          I wouldn’t be surprised if Jesus isn’t holding out a basket of fat, ripe summer figs to Mary as she sits silently at his feet in our Gospel lesson—offering her a concrete taste of life, and joy, and meaning in the face of the ending and upheaval that is to come for her with his death. Perhaps that One Thing that she chooses is to take the gift of a delicious fig from his open hand.
When was the last time that any of us spent any time with God that could be likened to eating summer fruit? Joyful, full of sunshine, full of health? I know that I feel more like Martha in my prayers—dutiful, asking for things to do. I seem to ask Jesus for a quick vitamin pill or a stiff wooden peach more often than for the squishiness of a ripe fig. I wonder what fruit Jesus might want to offer each of us today? Is God perhaps offering us the chance to pray forth our despair with a psalm, one that is gritty like a fig? Or to immerse ourselves in a moment of music, luscious like a peach? Maybe it’s time spent with a book as juicy as a watermelon or with a poem as small and full of flavor as a berry? Maybe it’s spending time on a walk on sand as grainy as raspberry seeds? In the face of all of the endings that frighten us, all of the pictures of violence and injustice that haunt us, all of the silences that overwhelm us … choose to take a moment this week to sit in the sun at the feet of Jesus, and take a piece of summer fruit from his hand.

[1]See 2 Sam 16:1-2; Micah 7:1; Isaiah 28:4. See also Yvonne Sherwood, “Of Fruit and Corpses and Wordplay Visions: Picturing Amos 8:1-3” in the Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 92 (2001) 5-27.

image of painting by Paul Cezanne

Saturday, May 28, 2016

Limping Around

Proper 4, Year C

1 Kings 18:20-21, (22-29), 30-39
Psalm 96
Galatians 1:1-12
Luke 7:1-10

O God, your never-failing providence sets in order all things both in heaven and earth: Put away from us, we entreat you, all hurtful things, and give us those things which are profitable for us; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

 Despite all of the blood and gore in our first lesson, the image that haunts me is the one of the limping Israelites. First, the prophet Elijah chides the people, “How long will you go limping with two different opinions? If the Lord is God, follow him; but if [it’s the god Baal that you want,] follow him!” Then, even after the altars are set up for Elijah’s great test, the people are still limping around Baal’s altar, around and around and around, hoping that their god will come to them.
Limping is something that I know about. After two months with a sprained ankle, I've gotten quite good at it. Physically, we limp because of an injury. We limp as a result of pain, because something is broken. We limp when we are trying to go forward despite imbalance. It’s the same thing in our spiritual lives.
For example, I would very much like to develop a deeper relationship with God in prayer … but I would also like to accomplish every single one of the tasks on my long to-do list, the list that keeps me feeling worthy. So I limp around as if my praying foot is too tender to place solidly on the ground. “Stomp,” goes my strong productive foot. “Tiptoe,” goes my weak prayer-time foot. “Wobble,” goes my Christian walk.
I would also truly like to develop a deeper relationship with God by making the sacrifices that would help me to take better care of God’s creation. But at the same time, I love the convenience and comfort of my energy-guzzling life. So I limp around as if my caring foot is too delicate to use. “Stomp,” goes my strong carbon footprint. “Tiptoe,” goes my weak effort to save energy. “Wobble,” goes my Christian walk.
Of course I would also like to develop a deeper relationship with God by loving my neighbor more fully. We know that’s what God wants us to do, right? But at the same time, I want to keep my money and my time for myself. What if I won’t have enough? So I limp around as if my loving foot is somewhat shriveled. “Stomp,” goes my strong fear-foot. “Tiptoe,” goes my weak generosity. “Wobble,” goes my Christian walk.
I have been wobbling for so long, that it feels natural most of the time. Round and round and round the altar I go, limping and yet crying out, “O God, answer me! Why don’t you show up in my life!” 
Sometimes I do notice my limping gait. I get disgusted with myself then, and I try to do something about it. But my methods are usually too harsh. For you Downton Abbey fans, I remind myself of Mr. Bates. He got so tired and ashamed of his limp that he went out and bought a gruesome cage-like contraption that was supposed to lengthen his leg by pulling on it. He strapped it on under his trousers and kept it a secret from his friends. The straps bit into his skin, however, and caused him terrible pain as an infection set in. He could hardly go about his day because of the pain, but he was determined to be strong. He was determined to fix his limp all by himself, to master it. If it hadn’t been for the intervention of an equally stubborn friend, he might have died trying to fix his own limping gait.
We can all be like Mr. Bates, strapping on harsh, cruel ways in order to appear strong in our spiritual lives. We can strap on a loud, strident voice, pretending to be sure of ourselves. We can strap on rigid certainties that we think will keep us straight. We can strap on intolerance and hatred for ourselves or for others. But all that these wicked contraptions do are to eat away at and infect the very parts of ourselves that we are trying to save.
What’s the answer then, for our limping ways? Elijah seems to solve the problem by calling everyone together to remind them of the Covenant, of God’s promise to them as a people. “Come closer to me,” Elijah calls out. And the limping people of Israel huddle in. When he has their attention, Elijah builds an altar that brings together the 12 tribes of Israel. He prepares a well-known liturgy. And then he involves everyone in the common task of hauling water. He sets them in motion. Finally, with everyone gathered, everyone participating, he prays to the God who has made an everlasting covenant with Israel. And God appears to them, knocking their limping feet out from under them all.
In ancient times, burnt offerings were a meal prepared for God—a meal that would tempt an almighty God to eat with us human beings. These sacrifices were not all about killing and suffering. The goal of these sacrifices was a joyful one—joyful fellowship with God, brought about through a meal. It was like preparing a fine dinner for an honored guest.[1]
Seen in this way, the sacrifice in I Kings sounds rather like the Christian community joined around the Eucharistic table, doesn’t it? The altar, the liturgical actions, the stories and songs that remind us who we are in God’s eyes? The meal shared in communion with God and one another? The words that recall to us God’s promise to be with us always? Us, limping up to receive the gift of God’s presence in our cupped hands? The difference is that in Christ, God is the one preparing the sacrifice for us—in the birth, life, and death of Jesus. God is the one who is carefully preparing a life-giving sacrifice for our nourishment, for our transformation into new life.
The Good News, the true Gospel that Paul is so desperate that the Galatians preserve, is that we are not expected to fix our own limps—nor are we unloved by God because of them. Our only task is to trust in that love, to respond with praise and thanksgiving for the new life that we have been given in Christ.[2] After all, if we truly trust that we are loved, the enormity of it will bring us to our knees in prayer. If we truly trust that God loves Creation, we will take a stand for its care. If we truly trust that God loves every human being, we will hold out our hands to each brother and sister in the wonder of it all.
Last week, busily preparing for the parish picnic, I suddenly felt a boost as I zipped around the building. I paused to wonder why I felt so industrious all of a sudden—and I realized that it was because I wasn’t limping anymore. Both of my feet were bearing weight together, and the pain was gone. Even though my ankle had been healing, my mind had been stuck in the dull old pace of brokenness. Suddenly aware of healing, I began to fly on the wings of praise and gratitude. I had just needed to remember the promise of how it feels to walk in wholeness.
Today, take, eat, and remember the Promise.

[1] Kathryn Tanner, Christ the Key, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010),266.
[2] Ibid., 272.


Saturday, May 7, 2016

How Can I Keep from Singing?

Easter 7C

O God, the King of glory, you have exalted your only Son Jesus Christ with great triumph to your kingdom in heaven: Do not leave us comfortless, but send us your Holy Spirit to strengthen us, and exalt us to that place where our Savior Christ has gone before; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, in glory everlasting. Amen.

On this Mother’s Day, we celebrate with cards and roses the special bond between mother and child. Our scripture wants to hold out to us today another bond, however. It is another bond of love that is desperately needed in this world: the bond created by God’s love to us in Jesus Christ. In today’s Gospel, Jesus is praying for us—praying with the fervent love that I pour into the prayers for my children, whenever distance tugs painfully at the maternal bonds. “Protect them, O God.” “Watch over them in this dangerous world.” “Show them happiness in their lives.” “Help them to know that I love them always.” At his last supper with his disciples before his death on the Cross, Jesus blesses them, and us, with the prayerful promise that our unbreakable bond with God will always be reflected in the love that we share with one another.
          Now, this is all pretty abstract theology. All of this talk of being “in” God can make our eyes glaze over pretty quickly on a Sunday morning, especially right after Derby. Children, I’ll bet that you already stopped listening to me a few minutes ago. So let me try to illustrate what Jesus is talking about by going back to the exciting story from Acts that we heard as our first reading.
          In this story, I have no trouble imagining the predicament that Paul gets his friend Silas and himself involved in. Just imagine that there’s a mysterious psychic down at Churchill Downs this weekend who can actually tell you which horses are going to win. A victim of human trafficking, she’s owned, let’s say, by a couple of guys who charge thousands of dollars for each secret racing tip. Imagine the money that they would be making on the races! And imagine how angry they would be when some strange Christian missionary comes down there and frees her! That missionary would be in as much trouble as a foreign-looking protestor at certain recent political rallies …. Looking at the news these days, I can definitely see how Paul and Silas end up beaten and chained in prison.
          In sharp contrast to the violence, suspicion, and exploitation going on in the world, we then have the image of Paul and Silas singing their hearts out in their prison cell. This is the image that I’m interested in today. Here they are, in the stocks, lifting their voices in joyful praise to God, as if they had just won the roses! Isn’t that a strange reaction? Their singing gets the attention of the whole prison. The other prisoners listen to their song, and I imagine that some of them join in, as well. All of that mighty singing then ends up in an earthquake—an earthquake that throws the prison doors wide open, like an opera singer shattering a glass with her powerful voice! Paul and Silas sing their way to a freedom that breaks down prison walls. They sing their way to a freedom that is so powerful that they don’t even need to leave the prison in order to experience it. Their freedom songs bring even the Roman jailor to their cause, freeing him, too, from his burdensome role as their oppressor.
          What is it about singing, I wonder? Scientific studies have shown that singing together as a choir syncs our breath and our hearts.[1] Not only do we breathe together, our hearts start beating together—fast or slow, depending on the music! Our voices, which can be kind of puny on their own, gain strength from the voices of others. The vibrations of other voices fill our entire bodies.
Near where I used to live in France, there’s an old walled city with a stone tower where they used to imprison Protestant women and children. In the 18th century, it was against the law not to follow the Roman Catholicism of the King. People who were caught in secret worship services or caught with a bible in their homes were thrown into prison until they signed a document saying that they would give up their religious beliefs. Can you imagine spending your life in a stone tower in the middle of a swamp, away from your family, with a bunch of strangers? With no TV, no computer. Just a pile of straw to sleep on. Guess what those women did in order to keep from going crazy? In order to stay strong in their faith? Yes, they sang together. Without any musical accompaniment, they sang the Psalms, blending the rich harmonies of their different voices. Like Paul and Silas, they sang songs of prayer and praise to God day after day, hour after hour. Memorizing the words together. Internalizing the prayers. And it was their singing that sustained them.
More recently, adults might remember the role that singing together played in the Civil Rights movement of the 1960’s. Protestors would sing “freedom songs” in their meetings, on the streets, and in jail cells. Once during the Mississippi Freedom Rides, imprisoned activists in Parchman Penitentiary sang together like Paul and Silas. Annoyed, the guards threatened to take away their mattresses if they didn’t shut up. So the protestors changed the words to their well-known hymns and started singing: "You can take my mattress, you can take my mattress, oh yeah, you can take my mattress you can take my mattress, I'll keep my freedom, oh yeah..."[2] The guards’ threats immediately lost their power.
 Listen to the words of Bernice Reagon as she explains what happened when the freedom riders sang together:
There were always songs that celebrated those times when we came together even in the midst of danger … we were bonded to each other, not because we went to school together, or were in the same social club. Not because we worked on the same job, but because we had decided that we would put everything on the line to fight racism in our community. Every participant in a local campaign had to decide to take that risk. We had to decide to leave the safety of being obedient to segregation to go to a place where we might lose everything we had. [In singing] we found in this new place a fellowship that we could not have imagined before we decided to stand.”[3]
Very different individuals came together and became One in song, One in the love of God, One for sharing the love of God.
Children, I watched with joy some of your faces last week when you sang, “Shall We Gather at the River” with the adult choir. I saw your expressions change as you felt the beauty of the grown-up voices joining with yours. Recently, I went down to Sewanee for a University Choir reunion. There were over 200 singers there in the school chapel that Sunday morning. Now you all know that my own singing voice is pretty weak and trembly. But when I joined my little voice with the voices of those alums of all ages, with people who came together for that one service from all across the country, it was like a miracle. My tiny voice, my feeble faith, came out of my private soul and blended somewhere in the air above me with the voices and the faith and the strength of others, and it came back to my ears with the power of an earthquake. The other singers were somehow in me, and I was in them, and we were all One in God.
We live in a fragmented, divisive world. A world that holds in suspicion those who are different, bullies them in schools and beats them in crowds. And like a longing mother, Jesus weeps at the walls we build around ourselves. He is still praying, as he did at the Last Supper, that we will let him free us, that we will let him enter into our hearts, lift out the goodness in our souls, and swirl it together over our heads in a healing song of salvation. He prays that we will hear his love song in our own voice and in the person singing next to us.
Do you want to live the words of Jesus in today’s Gospel? Then parents, sing together with your children. Young people, sing together with your friends. Come to church and sing. Go outside and sing. Learn the words of songs that speak your faith, and sing together to God. The kind of music doesn’t matter. It just matters that you sing. After all, you know the hymn:

" My life flows on in endless song, above earth's lamentation.
I catch the sweet, though far-off hymn that hails a new creation.
No storm can shake my inmost calm while to that Rock I'm clinging.
Since love is Lord of heaven and earth, how can I keep from singing?"
 Long view of the nave with choir and cross in foreground

[1] http://ideas.time.com/2013/08/16/singing-changes-your-brain/
[2] http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/amex/eyesontheprize/reflect/r03_music.html
[3] http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/amex/eyesontheprize/reflect/r03_music.html