Sunday, July 31, 2005

Proper 13A: Take, bless, break, give

“Taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds…”

There are four key words in today’s gospel reading: Take, bless, break, give. Four simple, one syllable words. Four words we have all used and will use many times in our lives. You have probably already realized that they are also four of the key words in the Eucharistic prayer. When I consecrate the bread and wine at the altar, I will remind you that Jesus took bread and gave thanks. In Hebrew to bless and to give thanks are virtually the same thing. And that after he had given thanks and blessed the bread, he broke it and gave it to his friends.

Take, bless, break, give. Four ordinary words. When Jesus fed the five thousand and later when he instituted the Lord’s Supper, why didn’t he do something elaborate, something memorable, something that would have attracted attention? Why didn’t he wave his hands or swirl the air with a magic wand? Why didn’t he say a long, complicated formula – something in Persian or some other difficult and relatively unknown language? Why didn’t he make people do something special before they could receive the bread, like handstands or somersaults? Instead, he just took bread, blessed it, broke it, and gave it. Just like that. Nothing special at all.

C.S. Lewis says somewhere that the gospels have the ring of truth about them because they are so ordinary. Of course, Jesus performs miracles but as miracles go, his are not all that dramatic. Rather, his miracles are … His miracles do not run counter to nature; they enhance nature. Think, for example, of the water that became wine. St. Augustine pointed out that water is always becoming wine; Jesus just speeded up the process. Or take any of the healing miracles. Even without divine intervention our bodies are engineered so that they heal themselves most of the time.

There are four canonical gospels – Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John – but there are other non-canonical gospels. The difference between the canonical and non-canonical gospels is vast. In the non-canonical gospels the boy Jesus turns his playmates into birds, he has a cherry tree bow down so that his mother can pluck the fruit. The Jesus of the canonical gospels is someone you can imagine having a conversation with; the Jesus of the non-canonical gospels is someone you would see on a stage in Las Vegas!

The extraordinary thing about Jesus is his ordinariness. God took human flesh and came among us not as a king, nor a warrior, nor a wealthy merchant but as a simple, ORDINARY peasant. A man who took bread, blessed it, broke it, and gave it to his friends hundreds of times in his life.

First and foremost, the gospel asks us to be faithful in ordinary things. The gospel asks us to be thankful for our food and clothing; it asks us to love our neighbor, that is the person in need whose path crosses ours, and most of the time that is the person in our own families.

The most extraordinary thing that the gospel tells us is that if you want to meet God, you do not need to cross rivers and oceans and climbs high mountains; the gospel tells us that God meets us right here in the ordinary, simple, and commonplace. That God is here in the bread and wine, in the hearts and lives of the persons seated around you, that God is here in your own heart.
Someone has pointed out that it would be more accurate to call the story the division of the loaves, rather than the multiplication.... This may seem to be a distinction without a difference, since the important point is that everyone gets fed, but there is a significant contrast: multiplying the loaves suggests just a change in quantity, whereas dividing the loaves implies a change in quality. Jesus makes do with what is a hand. Blessed and broken, touched by the power of God, it is these specific loaves which are now able to feed the multitude. Jesus doesn’t need to clone more loaves; rather, in breaking open the bread he brings forth as no one else could the possibilities and capabilities hidden in the depths of what is already there. And so of course he does with us as well. He breaks us open so that we have the capacity to be, and to do, far more than we otherwise could. He transforms us by making us more fully ourselves, by revealing that identity of which we ourselves are not fully are, the unique, unduplicatable way in which each of us is called to the image of God." (From "Model homily," Good News 26 (8): 274 (Liturgical Publications Inc., 2875 South James Drive, New Berlin WI 53151), 1999. Quoted by the Rev. Jerry Fuller in his sermon for Ordinary 18, Year A.)

Friday, July 29, 2005

Proper 12A: Wisdom and Questions

“There are no stupid questions.” That’s what I always tell my students, even though it’s not quite true. Occasionally, you really will have a student who will ask when the War of 1812 was fought or something like that.

The story is told of a rabbinical student who asked his teacher, “Master, why do you always answer my questions with another question?” To which his teacher replied, “So, what’s wrong with questions?”

Each of today’s readings hangs on a question.

In the Old Testament reading, God asks Solomon, “What should I give you?” And Solomon asks for wisdom, although in asking for wisdom Solomon showed that he was already wise. But as someone pointed out in Sunday School last week, the fact that Solomon had one thousand wives suggests that while he may have been a PhD in some ways, in the area of relationships he had a lot to learn.

Paul’s letter to the Romans is full of rhetorical questions. “What shall se say then? If God is for us, who can be against us? What shall separate us from the love of God in Christ?”

And finally, in the gospel reading Jesus compares the kingdom of God to a mustard seed, an exceptionally valuable pearl, a treasure hidden in a field, and a net which catches all manner of fish. If we read on to the next pericope, we learn that Jesus' friends and neighbors asked, "Where did this man get this wisdom and these mighty works?"

All of us have questions. I would even say that the kind of questions we ask play a big role in defining the kind of person we are. At least some of the time, many (perhaps a majority) of human beings have to ask the basic questions of survival: Where can I find food and shelter? Others are focused almost entirely on questions of self-aggrandizement: What do I need to do to make a million dollars before I’m 30? What must I do to become CEO or partner or get tenure?

But there are some questions that all of us ask: Who am I? What is the purpose of life? Is death a period or a comma? A wall or a door? An ending or a beginning?

I believe that Jesus’ parables were intended less to serve as answers and more to prod his listeners to ask further questions. Matthew tells us that after Jesus told the parable of the wheat and the weeds that his disciples came to him and said, “Explain to us the story of the wheat and the weeds.” And other listeners said, “Where did this man get this wisdom?”

Another great religious teacher who had a great gift for telling stories was the Buddha. Like Jesus the Buddha told stories that prompted questions that then led his listeners to go deeper and seek wisdom.

My favorite Buddhist story is also about a mustard seed. A woman named Kisa Gotami had one son whom she loved with all her heart, but tragically, he died. Desperate with grief, Kisa went to the Buddha and said, "Master, my son has died, but I know that you have the power to raise him from the dead." The Buddha looked on Kisa with compassion and said, "My daughter, I will raise him from the dead if you bring me a single mustard seed." And Kisa's heart leapt, for mustard seed was a common spice. Then the Buddha added, "But it must come from a house that has never known sorrow." So Kisa went from house to house and family to family, asking is they had ever known sorrow. And at every house she heard tales of sorrow and suffering. Finally, at the end of the day, Kisa sat down on the hill overlooking her village. The sun went down, the moon rose, and the lights in every house were lighted. Suddenly, it dawned on Kisa that sorrow is common to us all and that enlightenment is found, not in avoiding suffering but accepting it, not letting sorrow close our hearts but in allowing suffering to open our hearts to the suffering of others.

Like Solomon, the Buddha was a man of extraordinary wisdom, but there are limits to wisdom. When we face the great question of death, wisdom can teach us resignation but it cannot offer us any hope that death is not the last word. When we face the question of death, then we need to ask the question that Paul asked, “What can separate us from the love of God in Christ?”

It was not an open-ended question. It was a rhetorical question, a question to which Paul knew the answer. Paul surveyed heaven and earth. He set up straw figures only to knock them down. Can heights or depths separate us from God? Can past, present, or future? Can angels or principalities or any other spiritual being? Can even life and death separate us from God's love?

In our day we might add to Paul’s list. Can terrorism and violence? Can unemployment or financial difficulties? Can physical or mental handicaps? These questions take us beyond the limits of wisdom into the realm of faith.

Paul was convinced and I am convinced and I want you to be convinced that nothing, nothing, nothing in all creation can separate us from the love of God which lived among us and taught in parables and died upon a cross and rose again and is seated at God’s right hand and will come again in power and great glory. Amen.

Thursday, July 21, 2005

Proper 12, Year A -- A few random thoughts

The great Disciples of Christ preacher Fred Craddock entitled one of his books Overhearing the Gospel. His point is that some truths are easier to overhear than to hear. We are likely to reject some ideas if they come at us directly, but if they come at us sideways or from the edge of our consciousness, they might just slip past our defenses and plant themselves deep within our conscious or subconscious like a farmer’s seed landing on good and fertile earth. That seems to be what Jesus was doing in his parables. “Who is my neighbor?” asked the scribe. Jesus could have said, “You know perfectly well who your neighbor is; it’s any person in need whose path you cross” but instead he told a story, “A man went down from Jerusalem to Jericho and fell among thieves…” And I feel sure that the scribe never again asked who his neighbor was.

Parables are not unique to the Christian faith. Probably every great religious teacher has employed parables for communicating ideas that cannot be expressed directly. The Old Testament and the rabbis of Jesus’ day often told parables, but the other religious teacher I most associate with parables was the Buddha. There are many wonderful parables that are attributed to the Buddha but my favorite parable is one that, like today’s gospel reading, also uses a mustard seed to teach a lesson.

One day a grieving woman named Kisa Gotami went to see the Buddha. “Master,” she cried, “My only son has died. I know you have the power to bring him to life again.” The Buddha looked on the woman with compassion. “I will cure your son if you bring me a mustard seed from a house where no one has died.” So the woman went from house to house to house, inquiring if anyone had died there. Finally, at the end of the day Kisa realized that death is common to us all and that salvation is to be found not in avoiding suffering but in opening our heart to the suffering of others.

For Jesus the mustard seed is an illustration, but for the Buddha it is a device, an excuse to get the grieving mother to move toward enlightenment. However, the Buddhist story provides an opportunity to connect the gospel with Romans 8. (And by the way, if you're using the Episcopal eucharistic lectionary, please write the Standing Liturgical Commission and tell them that a break between Romans 8.34 and 35 practically eviscerates what is arguably the most important chapter in the New Testament.)

The Buddha's answer (or non-answer) to Kisa Gotami is full of wisdom and we would do well to learn what he had to teach, namely, that when grief closes our hearts to others, it also closes our hearts to healing. But Paul's answer to Kisa Gotami is much more satisfying to me. "Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord."

Monday, July 18, 2005

The Rocky Soil of our Hearts (Proper 11, Year A)

Today’s gospel reading follows naturally from last week’s parable of the sower. Last week we were told that God spreads the good news of the kingdom as a farmer scatters seed. However, about three fourths of the seed perishes for one reason or another. Only about one fourth lands in good soil and flourishes. This week Jesus tells us that even where seed flourishes weeds will also flourish.

The meaning of this parable seems to be that it is not up to us to decide what is a weed and what is a wholesome plant. In other words, God alone is the judge of the heart. I cannot know your heart and you cannot know mine. But God does know the heart and there will be a day of reckoning. Now what I like to believe is that on the day when God separates the weeds from the wheat, the surprising thing may be not that there are so many weeds but that there is far more wheat than we ever knew. But then, I’m an optimist!

William Temple who was Archbishop of Canterbury during World War II once said, “If I get to heaven [note that he said if not when] my first two questions will be: What are you doing here? And where’s old so and so?”

I’d like to offer three applications of this parable: the political, the personal, and the ecclesiastical.

The bombing in London and the larger war on terrorism is still much on my mind. This week British PM Tony Blair spoke to the House of Commons about “uprooting evil.” Blair is a practicing Christian, and I wonder if today’s gospel reading occurred to him when he used those words.

The gospel tells us that in trying to “uproot evil” we may also uproot much that is good. In every war there is so-called “collateral damage.” That is the euphemistic phrase we apply to the killing of non-combatants: children, the elderly, and so on.

A straightforward and un-nuanced application of this parable would seem to warn us against doing anything at all about uprooting evil, but I think that would be a mistake.

When he was president Jimmy Carter often quoted a phrase by Reinhold Niebuhr: “It is the sad duty of a politician to administer justice in a sinful world.” It’s a good phrase. This week I would paraphrase it like this: “It is the sad duty of a politician to distinguish the weeds from the wheat and pluck up and burn the weeds before they choke and kill the wheat.” And from the beginning of time until now there has never been a public official who has completely succeeded in doing that. Virtually every application of force in the defense of the good will do at least some harm to the innocent as well as the guilty.

Think of World War II. I cannot think of any war that was more justifiable than the Second World War. And yet even in that conflict many innocent people lost their lives. That did not make the war unjust. It simply meant that the price of justice was costly.

Jesus’ parable teaches us that the price of justice IS costly. If we wade into the field with our machetes, plucking up the weeds and burning them, we will destroy at least some of the wheat, too. The parable’s prohibition against plucking up the weeds applies primarily to the church. But in the larger field, the field of the world, Jimmy Carter and Reinhold Niebuhr’s admonition applies. Politicians and elected leaders do, in fact, have the sad and difficult duty of trying to distinguish the weeds from the wheat, of nurturing and cultivating the latter and restraining or destroying the former.

My one caution to PM Blair and Pres. Bush and others is that they must always administer justice with humility and great care. If it is necessary to separate the weeds from the wheat, then we must do so fully aware of the cost that will be paid by the innocent.

The second application of this parable I offer is the personal. Last week I suggested that the four destinations of the seed may all be inside each of us. Similarly, I believe that weeds and wheat grow side by side in our hearts.

One of the early church fathers spoke of ploughing the rocky soil of the heart. How true that is! The soil of our hearts is rocky and (as Jesus reminded us last week) thorns are as likely to grow as wholesome plants. But sometimes we want to pluck up what we think are weeds but which turn out later to be lovely flowers.

Each of us is a combination of light and darkness. The psychologist Carl Jung spoke of the “shadow side” of the human personality. The great Jewish book of wisdom the Talmud says that great people have great impulses. These impulses can be harnessed in both positive and negative ways.

Pres. Clinton is a good example. I am told that he is a man of enormous charisma. A friend who met him told me that every eye turns to Clinton when he enters a room. Obviously, he is capable of using this charisma positively and is presently doing so in his capacity as a fundraiser for victims of the Asian tsunami. But just as obviously he can also abuse this great personal magnetism

Or consider the emotions and feelings that we all possess. Happiness, sadness, anger and the other human emotions are what make us human. As such, they are God’s gifts and are good. But each of them can also be abused. The capacity for happiness can turn into the obsessive quest for pleasure. Sadness can become depression. And anger can become hatred. But if we were to rid ourselves of all emotions and feelings we would become something less than fully human. In the field of our hearts, we need to be careful not to burn the wheat along with the weeds.

Finally, there is the ecclesiastical application of this parable.

Do you know the story of the man who was stranded on a desert island for many years? When he was finally rescued, they noticed that he had built 3 shacks on the island. “What are those shacks?” they asked him. “Well,” he replied, “this is my house and this is my church and the one over there is the church I used to go to.”

Someone once said that the church is like the ark: if it weren’t for the storm outside, you couldn’t stand the stink inside! As churches go, the Episcopal Church and its fellow churches that make up the Anglican communion, may be more like the ark than most other churches.

I remember talking to a young Roman Catholic man several years ago. He asked me what Episcopalians believed about the eucharist, and I explained that some of us believed this and others believed that. Then he asked about the pope… and abortion.. and so on, and in each case, my answer was the same. Finally, he stopped asking questions and we both had a good laugh.

There are 2 fundamental mistakes we make about the church. The first is to believe that there are no tares or weeds, that one plant is as good as another. Plainly, this is not true. Not everything growing in the field is wheat. There are weeds that can choke the wheat. The other mistake is to believe that we can distinguish the wheat from the tares in the here and now. But not all cats are gray. There is right and wrong and what we believe matters.

Anglicanism is a huge umbrella which can tolerate a wide array of opinions or to change the metaphor, Anglicanism is like an enormous rubber band. It can stretch to include a sometimes bewildering array of people and ideas and causes but Anglicanism is not infinitely elastic. At some point the rubber band may break.

Some believe that the election of Gene Robinson to be bishop of New Hampshire was such a breaking point. That with his election the rubber band snapped. Others believe that Bishop Robinson’s election is a hopeful sign for people who have not been invited to the table.It is not for me to tell you what to think. Reasonable people can have diametrically opposed ideas about Bp Robinson and what he represents.

My personal opinion is that the kingdom is wider and different than any of us realize. But I also believe that there is a doctrinal center to the Christian faith and we must proclaim and hold fast to that center and that we relinquish it at our peril. But I also believe that there is more to it than doctrine.

Humorist Garrison Keillor grew up in a small fundamentalist sect in northern Minnesotat that he calls the Church of the Sanctified Brethren. The Brethren were always fighting over obscure doctrinal points. He says that no sooner would they form a quartet, than they would discover that one member of the quartet was unorthodox on some point of doctrine, and they would be back to a trio.

When Keillor first went to a Lutheran church he was amazed by the size of the choir. He was certain that there must be some members of the choir who were not absolutely orthodox in their theology and wondered why the choir tolerated heretics singing the praises of God.

I’m not prepared to say that everyone belongs in the choir, but I am prepared to welcome anyone who sincerely desires to sing God’s praises.

The parable of the wheat and the tares reminds us that we cannot tell the difference between the healthy, nourishing wheat and the noxious weeds. For now, they look pretty much the same to us. Some of the things we think are weeds may be wheat and vice versa.

Whether the field is the world, our hearts, or the church our task is to tend the field, to sing in the choir, and perhaps to appreciate the beauty of the field without deciding what is wheat and what is goldenrod. God doesn’t ask us to be perfect, just faithful.

Sunday, July 10, 2005

"Ears to Hear" (Proper 10, Year A)

On Thursday, July 7, terrorists detonated bombs at three locations in London: King’s Cross station , Edgware Road, and Liverpool Street. Thursday’s bomb blasts in London would have horrified me under any circumstances, but I found them especially shocking because I have been through King’s Cross many times on my way from Edinburgh to London and the bus that blew up was near the British Library where I have done research.. So, on Thursday I had a “there but for the grace of God” moment.

July 7, 2005, March 11, 2004 (the Madrid bombings) and September 11, 2001 are dates that separate one age from another. The civilized world has entered a new age, an age of anxiety and uncertainty, and I don’t hesitate to say that those who fly planes into office buildings and blow up commuters on the way to work have no part of the civilized world. We have no way of knowing when (not if, but when) there will be another attack. When the Soviet Union fell near the end of the 20th century, one historian wrote a book entitled The End of History. His point was that the Western world had triumphed. Our values -- free markets, free speech, the rule of law, religious toleration, and so on-- seemed to prevail everywhere. It wasn’t quite the new heaven and new earth promised in the Book of Revelation but it might be as close as a secular world could achieve. And then on a beautiful September morning, we turned on the television and saw airliners crash into the World Trade Center. History had not ended; it had only turned the corner and been mugged.

We are not the first people nor will we be the last to discover that the world we built had come crashing down. Why? we ask. We are good. We work hard. We go to church. We even help the poor both at home and abroad. We want to help the rest of the world to become as prosperous as we are. We don’t deserve to have terrorists destroy our skyscrapers and plant bombs on trains and buses. Don’t they appreciate all the things we’ve tried to do for them?

Israel had a similar experience in the 6th century BC. Judah, the southern kingdom, was very small; it wasn’t much more than the city of Jerusalem and its suburbs. Israel, the much larger northern kingdom, had been destroyed by the Assyrians in the 8th century BC. This made the people of Judah a bit smug. They assumed that God had punished their northern cousins for worshiping false gods and failing to heed God’s law. We obey the law, they thought. We have the Temple and the priesthood. But the prophet Jeremiah mocked this attitude. Jeremiah stood in the forecourt of the Temple and said, “Do not trust in these deceptive words, ‘We have the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord’ … for I will do to this place what I did to the Northern Kingdom and cast you out of my sight.” (Jer. 7.4ff paraphrased)

And Jeremiah was right. The Babylonians invaded Judah in 587 BC, destroyed the temple, and took the people of Judah into exile. It shattered their most fundamental convictions. They were God’s chosen. God had made “an everlasting covenant” with them. Where was the God who had led them out of captivity in Egypt, through the wilderness, and established them in a land flowing with milk and honey? Were the gods of Babylon greater than the God of Israel?

Our situation is not the same as that of Israel in the 6th century. We have not been carried into exile nor have our holy places been destroyed. We do not lament (as Israel lamented in Psalm 137) that “by the waters of Babylon our captors required of us songs… How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?”

However, I do believe that we have crossed some kind of line, that the world this week is very different from the world last week, and is vastly different from the pre-9/11 world. We have crossed a line and there is no going back to the way things were.

So in a sense, we, too, are exiles. The safe, predictable world we knew no longer exists. Life seems more dangerous and fragile. After last week’s terrorist attacks there seems to be less light and more darkness in the world.

Today’s reading from Isaiah appears to be overwhelmingly joyous and upbeat: “…every one who thirsts, come to the waters; and he who has no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price….you shall go out in joy, and be led forth in peace; the mountains and the hills before you shall break forth into singing, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands.” But in the midst of this glorious hymn of God’s abundant grace, Isaiah suddenly breaks off and says, “Seek the LORD while he may be found, call upon him while he is near; let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts; let him return to the LORD, that he may have mercy on him, and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon. For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, says the LORD. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.”

“Let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous his thoughts… For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways…”

When life is good, when we are successful and healthy and the stock market is going up and we have just hit a hole in one on the golf course and the Atlanta Braves are in the playoffs, we are not much bothered by the notion that God’s “thoughts are not [our] thoughts and God’s ways are not [our] ways.”

But when things are not going well, when we’ve been laid off and the credit card payment is overdue and the doctor wants to do more tests, then these words are not so reassuring. What if God’s idea of success is not my idea of success? What if God’s thoughts about my life are 180 degrees different from my thoughts about my life? What if God’s path takes us through wilderness and exile and we have no idea when we will enter the Promised Land?

Jesus’ parable of the sower does not offer us any easy answers, either. “A sower went forth to sow,” Jesus said. “And as he sowed, some seeds fell on the path, and the birds came and ate them up. Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where it quickly withered. Other seed fell among thorns that choked it. Other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty."

The seed, Jesus tells us, represents the “word of the kingdom.” Presumably, the “word of the kingdom” means God’s message, the good news or gospel. Why doesn’t God only plant the seed of the gospel in good soil? Why are there rocks and birds and thorns in the first place?

Both the readings from Isaiah and Matthew invite more questions than they answer. Isaiah assures us that God’s word will “accomplish” its purpose, and “prosper.” But Jesus seems to suggest that about 75% of the time God’s word does not prosper but rather shrivels in the sun or is choked by weeds or is carried off by the “evil one.”

We long for a world in which God’s word does accomplish its purpose, a world in which there are no rocks or thorns but only fertile soil in which the gospel flourishes. But God did not create that kind of world. Instead God created a world in which good and evil are next door neighbors, a world in which swords can be beaten into plowshares but plowshares can also be beaten into swords.

God created a world in which mighty Babylon could overwhelm tiny Judah, and in which the even mightier Persians overwhelmed Babylon in turn.

How are we to live in a world of both beauty and terror, a world in which the commute to work can become even more terrifying than Israel’s journey through the wilderness?

Both Isaiah and Matthew give us some guidance.

While God’s covenant with Israel was eternal, it was not unconditional. As soon Isaiah told Israel that God desired to make an “everlasting covenant” with them, he immediately reminded them that the wicked and unrighteous must “forsake” their ways and “return” to the Lord. Every human heart is an alloy of good and evil; the human task is to purge the evil and refine the good.

The parable of the sower in Matthew speaks of four kinds of soil, but the truth is that all four are in every human heart. Sometimes the thorns that choke the word come up out of the depths of our being; sometimes the word withers in the heat of our indifference; sometimes trivial cares and concerns whisk away the word like crows pecking at the young corn.

Both Isaiah and Matthew give us a solution to our dilemma that is at once profoundly simple and terribly difficult. Jesus introduces his parable with a one word command: "Listen!" In Isaiah, God commands Israel to “Incline your ear and come to me; listen that your soul might live.”

Listen for that still, small voice. Listen to those who have no voice. Listen to the silence because the silence may be God’s way of saying things for which we have no words.

The world is God’s creation, not ours. The divine wisdom fashioned a world in which both good and evil can flourish for a time, but our faith and hope is that the day will come when evil will wither and be choked by thorns and good alone will flourish. Listen, for even now we can hear hills begin to sing alleluias and the trees’ vast hands clap together.

Thursday, July 07, 2005

Proper 10, Year A ... some random thoughts

How can you not love Isaiah 55? I don't care whether there were one, two, three, or seventeen Isaiahs. Whoever wrote Isaiah 55 was a great poet.

For you shall go out in joy,
and be led back in peace;
the mountains and the hills before you
shall burst into song,
and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands.

Do you know the story of evangelist Dwight Moody and his friend Scottish New Testament scholar Henry Drummond? Moody was quite conservative and Drummond was fairly liberal, but they were close friends. Moody invited Drummond to speak at a conference, and Drummond responded by saying, "Are you sure you want me to speak? After all, I believe that there were three Isaiahs." Moody replied, "Henry, there are people here who don't know there was one Isaiah!"

I don't remember if composer Randall Thompson used this particular bit of Isaiah in his oratorio, The Peaceable Kingdom, but for some reason it's been running through my mind as I read these words. That made me think about the Bible and music. From beginning to end the Bible seems to beg to be set to music.

That inspired a somewhat heretical thought. You can almost judge the value of a text by how readily it can be set to music. The texts that have inspired the best music also seem to be the ones that take us most deeply into God's mysteries. Think of the texts that Handel chose for Messiah or Brahms set in his German Requiem.

But there are also some important texts that are not easily set to music. Much of Paul is either not easily sung or is so closely argued that one would have to set whole chapters to music. Also the parables of Jesus would be a real challenge for composers. (Although they might make terrific mini-operas. Benjamin Britten composed a setting of the Prodigal Son and even avowed atheist Sergei Prokofiev wrote a ballet based on the same parable.)

Isaiah 55 and Matthew 13 are an obvious pairing. They both speak of a God of extravagant generosity. One thing is certain: God did not go to Harvard Business School and would not do very well on The Apprentice! This God does not keep an eye on the bottom line. Rather, God offers "wine and milk" to "those without money".

In Matthew the sower seems to represent God. Again, God seems extravagant, even careless, in broadcasting the "word of the kingdom." God seems not to care if it falls on good soil or rocks or among thorns.

But in both Isaiah and Matthew God's word has a life of its own. Isaiah tells us that God's word "shall not return... empty" but will "accomplish [its] purpose." In Matthew the soil is the random factor; the seed will flourish if the the soil gives is half a chance.

The idea that God's word has a life of its own intrigues me. We think of words as insignificant. We say or write things carelessly. Deeds, not words, are the important thing. Do you remember what Eliza Doolittle sings in My Fair Lady?

Words! Words! Words!
I'm so sick of words!
I get words all day through;
First from him now from you!
Is that all you blighters can do?
Don't talk of stars, burning above;
If you're in love, show me!

But words are powerful and often take on a life of their own. I think of Thomas Jefferson's words in the Declaration of Independence: "We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal..." They were words that changed the world. Indeed, they changed the world in ways that Jefferson did not imagine they would and in ways he did not want the world to be changed. They brought about a revolution not just for white male property owners but eventually for African Americans and women, too.

The Bible's words have a remarkable power to change lives. When St. Augustine was struggling with whether or not to become a Christian, he heard a child singing the words, Tolle lege... tolle lege. ("Take and read... take and read.") and he picked up an open Bible and read the words, "Let us walk honestly, as in the day; not in rioting and drunkenness, not in chambering and wantonness, not in strife and envying. But put ye on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make not provision for the flesh, to fulfil the lusts thereof." And from that moment Augustine sought baptism and never looked back.

Encountering God's word changes us because to encounter the word is to encounter God. Each word that we speak carries just a bit of ourselves with it. How much more then do God's words represent God?

God's words change the world and change us. God scatters or broadcasts the divine word prodigally, liberally, extravagantly. God invites us to receive the word, but we should be aware that we do not know how it will change us.

Isaiah tells us what happens when we hear and heed God's word.

For you shall go out in joy,
and be led back in peace;
the mountains and the hills before you
shall burst into song,
and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands.